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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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. COPD Guidelines, “Global Initiative For Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Global Strategy For Diagnosis, Management, And Prevention Of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: 2018 Report,” 2018,, accessed 9/14/18
  2. Stocks, Janeet, Samantha Sonnappa, “Early influences on the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” Therapeutic Advances In Respiratory Disease, 2013, June,, accessed 9/14/18
  3. Svanes, et al., “Early life origins of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” British Medical Journal,, accessed 9/18/18
  4. Reissland, et al., “Ultrasound observations of subtle movements: a pilot study comparing foetuses of smoking and nonsmoking mothers,” Acta Paediatrica, June, 2015,, accessed 9/18/18


  • Barbara Moore moderator
    5 months ago

    This a another great article with tons of information that causes us to stop and think long and hard about accepting our habits as the cause for our illness. Back in the day… there was so little understanding. Barbara Moore (Site moderator)

  • kimmer1968
    5 months ago

    I had pertussis as an infant and I believe chronic bronchitis as a child (I was sent home at least twice a year in grade school for TB tests, which were always negative) is it possible whooping cough out me on my COPD path?

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    5 months ago

    Hi kimmer1968 and thanks for this post as well. We would not be able to draw a connection between your whooping cough (pertussis) as a child and your current COPD condition. You may be aware that pertussis is the result of a bacteria infection while COPD is an insidious disease of various etiologies. Have you been able to discuss your concerns with your physician? Please let us hear back from you. Leon (site moderator)

  • Barbara Moore moderator
    5 months ago

    The same here Kimmer1968. I had pneumonia several times as a child and I remember my mother smoking in the room as I was being treated. If only we had known then. Barbara Moore (site moderator)

  • Barbs47
    5 months ago

    I was born and brought up on a busy main road with buses and lorries using the road. I also remember standing at the bus stop with diesel lorries going past. If I think about it I can smell the pollution. My respiratory specialist also confirmed all the pollution contributed to my COPD.

  • Barbara Moore moderator
    5 months ago

    Hi Barbs47, I hear you when you say you can almost smell it. I was raised in a Steel town and pollution meant that men could work and support their families. It was something to brag about back in the day. Barbara Moore (site moderator)

  • Allyson.Ellis moderator
    5 months ago

    Barbs47, thank you for sharing your experience with how exposure to diesel pollution as a young child affected your lungs over time. I’m glad your doctor recognized and affirmed the connection. Wishing you a gentle day. ~Allyson ( team)

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