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What Causes COPD? Identifying Triggers and Preventing Symptoms

Friday 10 May 2024
6 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. What is COPD?

II. COPD Causes

i. Occupational Exposures

ii. Smoking

iii. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency

iv. Air Pollution

III. What Causes COPD Exacerbations?

IV. Conclusion

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a debilitating respiratory condition that affects millions of people in the U.S. While smoking is often the primary cause of COPD, it's not the only factor that leads to the disease. [1]

In this article, we'll explore the various causes of COPD. By understanding the underlying factors that lead to COPD, you can work with your doctor to take preventive steps or properly manage the disease.

What is COPD?

doctor holding illustration of lungs

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) refers to a group of progressive lung diseases that obstruct airflow and make it difficult to breathe. The two main conditions under the COPD umbrella are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. [2]

  • Chronic bronchitis causes irritation and inflammation of the airways. This leads to excess mucus production, which blocks airflow and causes coughing and shortness of breath.
  • Emphysema damages the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs, which normally expand and contract when breathing. With emphysema, the stiffened alveoli lose elasticity. This traps air in the lungs, obstructing inhalation. [2]

The presence of these obstructions in the airways makes breathing increasingly difficult for individuals with COPD. These obstructions not only decrease the amount of oxygen entering the lungs and bloodstream but also prevent the removal of carbon dioxide from the body. These changes can have a negative impact on the proper functioning of organs and tissues. [3]

Unfortunately, the damage from COPD cannot be reversed. However, medication and lifestyle changes can help manage symptoms and slow COPD progression. [4]

COPD Causes

Understanding the underlying causes of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is crucial in effectively managing this chronic lung condition. COPD develops because of prolonged damage and inflammation within the lungs. This can be due to various factors such as smoking, genetics, occupational hazards, and air pollution. [2]

Occupational Exposures

Occupational exposures are an important contributor to COPD development, accounting for about 14% of all COPD cases and 30% of cases in people who have never smoked. [5]

Certain jobs carry higher risks for COPD due to regular exposure to chemicals, dust, fumes, and other lung irritants. 

  • Workers in steelworks, finishing mills, and blast furnace industries may be exposed to asbestos, which is a known cause of COPD.
  • Those working in automotive repair are at risk from aerosol paints.
  • Farmers who handle pesticides extensively can develop COPD after years of exposure.
  • Jobs with high dust exposure, like construction and non-construction labor, may lead to COPD as well. [5]

It is crucial to be aware of the risks associated with your job and take necessary precautions to protect your respiratory health. If you work in any of the industries mentioned above, make sure to wear protective gear and take frequent breaks to minimize your exposure.


Quitting smoking is one of the most important things you can do to protect your lungs. Smoking is responsible for about 75% of COPD cases. When tobacco burns, it releases thousands of chemicals that damage the lungs in many ways: [6]

  • The chemicals from a cigarette gradually weaken the lungs' natural defense mechanisms, leaving them more vulnerable to infections.The body's ability to fight off respiratory infections diminishes, making you more susceptible to frequent bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Cigarettes cause inflammation and irritation, resulting in the constriction of the air passages. As a result, individuals experience persistent coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, even during simple activities like climbing stairs or walking short distances.
  • The toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke gradually destroy the alveoli, reducing the lungs' ability to effectively oxygenate the blood. As the number of functional air sacs diminishes, the ability to breathe becomes severely compromised, leading to a decline in overall lung function. [6]

The good news is that even if you have smoked for decades, quitting can immediately improve your cardiovascular and respiratory systems. [7]

Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency

Alpha-1 antitrypsin (ATT) deficiency is a genetic condition that is responsible for causing COPD in some cases. People with this condition do not produce enough of a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin, which is responsible for protecting the lungs. This protein is crucial as it safeguards the lungs from harmful pollutants and environmental dust damage that can cause COPD. [8]

It is important to identify ATT Deficiency within families as early as possible. This can help in preventing the onset of COPD or other lung diseases. A simple blood test can identify this deficiency and once detected, proper measures can be taken to manage the condition. [8]

Air Pollution

Over time, exposure to air pollution can take a toll on lung health, especially for those living with COPD. That's because the tiny particulate matter floating in polluted air can penetrate deep into the lungs, which can lead to COPD or cause COPD exacerbations. [9]

Examples of particulate matter include:

  • Dust
  • Diesel emissions
  • Pollen
  • Pet dander
  • Mold spores [9]

While we cannot completely avoid air pollution, there are steps you can take to minimize its impact.

  • Avoid strenuous outdoor activities on high pollution days when particulate levels are elevated. Save your jog, bike ride, or garden work for another day.
  • Use high-quality air filters and purifiers indoors, especially in the rooms where you spend the most time. This helps trap pollutants and supply cleaner air.
  • Wear an N95 or other protective mask when going outside on poor air quality days. Masks help block particles from entering your airways.
  • Talk to your doctor about preventative COPD medications and having an action plan in place in case of a pollution-triggered COPD exacerbation. [9]

What Causes COPD Exacerbations?

woman experiencing a COPD exacerbation

COPD exacerbations, or flare-ups, are periods when symptoms rapidly worsen. [10] The most common triggers of COPD exacerbations are:

  • Exposure to lung irritants like cigarette smoke
  • Viral or bacterial lung infections [10]

When these triggers are present, it is crucial to be aware of the warning signs and let your doctor know immediately if you experience any symptoms. Symptoms of a COPD exacerbation can include:

  • COPD symptoms that suddenly become worse.
  • Increased coughing.
  • Sudden shortness of breath.
  • Difficulty with everyday tasks like walking or showering.
  • Coughing up dark mucus.
  • Lower than normal oxygen levels. [10]

COPD exacerbations may persist for days or weeks. Often, antibiotics, steroids, or hospitalization are needed to get the flare-up under control. Unfortunately, permanent lung damage can occur with each exacerbation. As COPD progresses, flare-ups tend to become more frequent. [11]

To help prevent COPD exacerbations, your doctor may prescribe long-term maintenance inhalers. These medications reduce inflammation and improve lung function over time. Examples include:

  • Symbicort is a combination inhaler containing an inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) and a long-acting bronchodilator (LABA). Two puffs are taken twice daily to improve lung function and reduce the frequency of exacerbations. [12]


COPD is a serious lung disease that impacts the lives of many Americans. While some COPD risk factors, like genetics, cannot be changed, there are preventive steps you can take to lower your chances of developing COPD. Staying away from environmental pollutants like cigarette smoke and air pollution is one way to help prevent COPD. If lung disease runs in your family, getting screened early is important. 

Detecting COPD in the beginning stages gives you the greatest opportunity to keep symptoms under control. With an early diagnosis, you and your doctor can get a head start on managing symptoms before they become severe.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.