COPD and Air Pollution

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2024

Indoor and outdoor air pollution have many negative health effects. This includes a higher risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). People with higher exposure to air pollution have a higher risk of developing COPD. For people who also smoke, the risk of COPD becomes even higher.1,2

Regular exposure to air pollution can be very harmful for people with COPD. It can worsen symptoms and cause more frequent COPD attacks (also called exacerbations). Talk to your doctor about ways to reduce exposure to air pollution.1

What is the link between air pollution and COPD?

Air pollution is a major global health issue. It has more serious health impacts on people with COPD than other people. This is because pollution increases lung inflammation in people with COPD. This can worsen symptoms and lung function.1

Polluted air contains tiny particles called irritants. Irritants damage the lungs. Inhaling a low amount of irritants over a long time can cause damage. Inhaling a high amount of irritants over a short time can also cause damage.1

Climate change is increasing the severity of COPD. Climate change involves long-term changes in temperature, humidity, and frequency of extreme weather events. These changes impact respiratory (breathing) health and affect air pollution levels. Climate change will continue to worsen the public health issues of air pollution and COPD.1,3,4

How can indoor air pollution cause COPD?

Indoor pollution describes irritants in the air inside the home. People who live in a home with these pollutants have a higher risk of COPD. Sources of indoor air pollution that have the greatest effect on COPD are:5

  • Tobacco smoke, including secondhand smoke
  • Smoke from burning fuel inside

Cigarette smoking, including secondhand smoke, is the most common cause of COPD in the United States. Secondhand smoke is the smoke of someone else who is smoking. When people smoke indoors, particles of tobacco smoke fill the air. Exposure to secondhand smoke can cause someone who has never smoked to develop COPD. For people who have COPD, secondhand smoke can worsen symptoms.1,6,7

In some countries, it is more likely that air pollution caused by burning fuel indoors will cause COPD. Many people burn wood or coal indoors to cook food and heat their homes. Over time, inhaling smoke from burning fuel can damage the lungs and cause COPD. Poor air movement (ventilation) can make this problem worse.8

How can outdoor air pollution affect a person with COPD?

Outdoor pollution includes irritants in the air outside the home. It is also called “urban air pollution.” Large cities with heavy traffic and large industrial areas have higher levels of outdoor pollution. Polluted outdoor air contains many different harmful particles. They include:1,6

  • Particulate matter – solid and liquid particles from motor vehicles, factories, power plants, and wildfires
  • Gaseous pollutants – gases like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone

Living in a place with high levels of outdoor air pollution is very harmful for people with COPD. Outdoor air pollution can:1

  • Worsen COPD symptoms
  • Worsen lung function
  • Increase risk of respiratory infections and hospital visits
  • Increase risk of death from COPD

Researchers are not yet sure whether outdoor air pollution causes COPD. But it can increase risk for people who also inhale other irritants, such as cigarette smoke. It can also increase the risk of COPD in people with asthma.1,2

How can I reduce my exposure to air pollution?

The first step is to understand your level of exposure to certain air pollutants. Use air quality devices to track indoor and outdoor air quality. Monitor your COPD symptoms to see if pollutants are triggering them.5

The next step is to reduce or eliminate the source of air pollution. The best way to improve air quality in your home is to improve ventilation. Open your doors or windows for a few minutes on days with good air quality. Air cleaners and filter systems may also improve indoor air quality.5

Other possible ways to reduce exposure to air pollutants include:5

  • Keeping your home and car smoke-free
  • Avoiding burning things in your home
  • Using exhaust fans when cooking
  • Using an electric or gas heater instead of a wood stove
  • Wearing a face mask in smoky or dusty conditions
  • Avoiding activity outdoors when air pollution levels are high
  • Avoiding walking or exercising near sources of air pollution

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