Who Is at Risk for COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has several possible causes. Cigarette smoking is by far the most common cause. Other causes are lung damage caused by air pollution and workplace pollution. In addition, some people are born with a rare genetic condition that can cause them to develop COPD, whether or not they smoke.

There are other reasons that a person may be more likely to get COPD. These are risks that are linked to a person’s early life and medical history:

  • Being exposed to cigarette smoke in early life
  • Having a history of serious respiratory infections
  • Having other respiratory conditions

What is the link between cigarette smoke and lung growth in early life?1,2,3

Being exposed to cigarette smoke in early life can make a person more likely to get COPD later in life. As a person grows from an infant to child to teenager to young adult, many things can affect the way the lungs grow. Anything that damages lung growth can also increase the risk of COPD.
Mothers who smoke during their pregnancy tend to give birth to infants with a lower birth weight than mothers who do not smoke. Studies show that there is a link between low birth weight as an infant and getting COPD as an adult.
Regularly breathing cigarette smoke during childhood can keep a child’s lungs from growing to their biggest possible size as a young adult. For instance, growing up in a home where people smoke indoors can make a person more likely to get COPD when they grow up.
The same effect can happen to people who start smoking as teenagers. Smoking before their bodies have fully grown prevents their lungs from reaching their full size. This causes a higher risk of getting COPD.

What is the link between respiratory infections and COPD?1,3

Serious respiratory infections during childhood can also affect lung growth. If a child has many respiratory infections, it can keep his or her lungs from growing fully and working in the best possible way. This can cause a higher risk of getting COPD as an adult. Young adults who smoke and have chronic bronchitis infections are also more likely to develop COPD later in life.

Having serious respiratory infections as a child can also make a person more likely to have lower lung function and more respiratory symptoms as an adult. People with COPD who have more respiratory infections tend to have more COPD attacks (also called “exacerbations”).

What is the link between COPD and other respiratory conditions?1,3

Studies show that people with asthma are more likely to get COPD during their lives. One study found that people with asthma were up to 12 times more likely to get COPD during their lifetimes than people without asthma.
However, scientists are not sure if asthma itself can be a cause of COPD. Instead, it might be that asthma and COPD have shared risk factors. This means that people with these risk factors are more likely to develop asthma and then COPD, even though it is not the asthma that causes the COPD.
One of the main symptoms of asthma is called “bronchial hyperreactivity.” People without asthma and people with COPD can also have this symptom.
People with bronchial hyperreactivity can have attacks of a breathing problem called a “bronchospasm.” These attacks can make it very difficult to breathe. This happens because the airways suddenly narrow and not enough air can pass in and out of the lungs.
Whether they have asthma or not, people with bronchial hyperreactivity are more likely to develop COPD than people without it.

Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: July 2015.
View References
  1. American Thoracic Society / European Respiratory Society Task Force. Standards for the Diagnosis and Management of Patients with COPD [Internet]. Version 1.2. New York: American Thoracic Society; 2004 [updated 2005 September 8]. Available from: http://www.thoracic.org/go/copd [Accessed 16 January 2015.]
  2. “Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” In: Gibson GJ et al., eds. The European Lung White Book: Respiratory Health and Disease in Europe: European Respiratory Society; 2013:148-159.
  3. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD). Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management and Prevention of COPD, 2014. Available at: http://www.goldcopd.org/ [Accessed 16 January 2015.]