Near Birth Events May Contribute To COPD   

It’s not just adult smoking of cigarettes that causes COPD. It’s also not just aging. Researchers are now learning that early life events, and things you’re exposed to early in life, may contribute to COPD later in life. Here’s what to know.

Before birth

There’s a theory called the “Fetal Origins Hypothesis.” It postulates that exposure to certain events in utero may contribute to disease later in life. In our case, they may increase the risk of developing lung diseases later in life.

There are a variety of maternal environments that may stunt fetal development. Of these, cigarette smoking is the most often cited. There are other substances besides smoking that may influence fetal lung growth. Many of these are listed in the next section.1-4

Maternal smoking may cause gene mutations. These change recipes for how future cells are made. As airways branch out, these new airways develop with changes. These changes may include extra airway smooth muscle. These changes may also make airways hypersensitive.1-4

Maternal smoking may also slow fetal lung movements and reduce fetal oxygen supplies. This may slow fetal lung development and maturation. These children tend to be born with low birth weights and lungs that have not fully matured. This results in lower lung functions at birth.2-3

Studies show kids born with lower lung functions continue to have lower lung functions throughout life.4 And this increases their risk for developing COPD later on.1-4

After birth

Lungs continue growing and developing after birth. It continues until a person stops growing, usually between the ages of 20 and 25. Likewise, this maturation continues to be influenced by a person’s external environment. And so this environment may contribute to lower lung functions, thereby increasing the risk of developing COPD later on.2-3

Environmental substances

Various environmental substances have been studied. Here are the ones most likely to impact a growing person's lungs.1-4

Respiratory Infections

A child is exposed to a respiratory virus early in life. This results in a severe cold. Respiratory viruses can cause changes to your airways. It’s possible these changes may impact lung development.1-3

Cigarette Smoking

Like maternal smoking prebirth, exposure to second-hand smoke may also affect an infants genes. It may cause changes that impact the development of the child’s lungs. This may explain studies linking early life exposure to cigarette smoking with COPD later in life. Maternal smoking post-birth may also increase the risk of infant lung infections, which may also reduce lung function.1-3


Various vitamins and minerals have been linked with asthma and COPD later in life. Included here are those containing vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin D, and antioxidants. These have long been linked with asthma and COPD. So, it’s possible that low levels of these nutrients early in life may impact lung how lungs develop.  So, if mom is breastfeeding, it’s important for her to eat a healthy diet.2

Formula feeding

Formula fed infants have smaller lung volumes compared with breastfed infants. This may be due to nutrition factors (noted above) that may impact lung maturation.2

Premature birth

This is defined as being born before 37 weeks gestation. This results in birth before the lungs are fully developed. This has been linked with the development of asthma and COPD later in life. Of particular concern here are infants born before 28 weeks gestation. They are usually exposed to supplemental oxygen. This also may cause changes that impact how lungs develop.2

Air Pollution

This may include natural pollution such as ozone. It may also include man-made pollution, such as cigarette smoke and car exhaust. All have been linked with respiratory disorders later in life.2

What to make of this?

COPD doesn’t develop early in life. But, things a little body is exposed to may slow lung growth and maturation. And this may increase their risk of developing COPD later in life.

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