COPD and Air Pollution

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2015. | Last updated: August 2017

Indoor and outdoor air pollution both have strong links to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A person who regularly breathes in air pollution can have a higher risk of getting COPD. If the person is a smoker, the risk of COPD is even higher.

For people who have COPD already, living in a place with air pollution can be very harmful. It can make their symptoms worse and cause COPD attacks (also called “exacerbations”) to happen more often.

What is the link between air pollution and COPD?1

Damage to the lungs causes COPD and can make COPD progress faster. Polluted air contains tiny particles called “irritants” that damage the lungs. This damage to the lungs can happen by:

  • Inhaling a small amount of irritants over a long period of time, or
  • Inhaling a large amount of irritants over a short period of time.

How can indoor air pollution cause COPD?2,3

Indoor pollution describes irritants in the air inside the home. The types of indoor air pollution that have the greatest effect on COPD are:

People who live in a home with these kinds of indoor air pollution have a higher risk of getting COPD.

Secondhand smoke is the cigarette smoke of someone else who is smoking. In homes where people smoke indoors, the air becomes filled with harmful particles of tobacco smoke. Breathing in secondhand smoke is also called “passive smoking.” Over time, breathing in this polluted indoor air can cause serious problems, such as respiratory infections and asthma.

Being exposed to secondhand smoke over time can sometimes cause someone who has never smoked to develop COPD. For people who have COPD, secondhand smoke and passive smoking can make their symptoms worse.

Cigarette smoking – including passive smoking - is the most common cause of COPD in the United States and many other countries. But in certain countries, air pollution caused by burning fuel inside the home causes more cases of COPD than smoking does.1

Around the world, billions of people burn wood or coal indoors to cook food and heat their homes. Breathing in the smoke from the burning fuel can damage the lungs over time and cause COPD. This is especially a problem if the home is not well ventilated. Women and children who spend large amounts of time in the home have the highest risk of getting COPD from burning fuel indoors.

How can outdoor air pollution affect a person with COPD?2,4

Outdoor pollution describes irritants in the air outside the home. It is also called “urban air pollution.” Large cities with heavy traffic and large industrial areas often have higher levels of outdoor pollution. Heavily polluted outdoor air might contain thousands of different harmful particles.

For people with COPD, living in a place with high levels of outdoor air pollution can be very harmful to their quality of life. Outdoor air pollution can affect them in the following ways:

  • COPD symptoms get worse
  • Increased risk of respiratory infections
  • Respiratory infections can cause dangerous COPD attacks

Researchers are not yet sure whether breathing outdoor air pollution can cause COPD by itself. However, it can make people who also inhale other types of irritants – such as people who smoke – more likely to develop COPD.

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