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Prevalence of COPD in Young People

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) has long been associated with older age. But a trend is beginning to emerge. An increasing number of young people, those under the age of 50, are being diagnosed with this debilitating lung condition. In 2019, an estimated 49 million people aged 30 to 39 worldwide had COPD.1,2

COPD is a progressive lung disease that reduces airflow, making it difficult to breathe. COPD is mainly caused by long-term exposure to irritants in cigarette smoke, air pollution, or chemical fumes. COPD can impact a person’s life span and quality of life as they age. Awareness of your risk factors, combined with early detection, can help improve your health and save your life.1

Risk factors for COPD in young people

While rates of COPD in young people are still quite low, there are some risk factors to be aware of. COPD in young people comes down to a few key things. People under age 50 have a higher chance of developing COPD if they are:1,2

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  • Men
  • Non-Hispanic Black or non-Hispanic white people
  • Smokers

Smoking is a huge risk factor

Smoking rates have increased in the last few years, likely due to the use of e-cigarettes, or vapes. Most of the latest research looking at COPD rates in young people – between 20 and 50 years of age – has found that smoking was a prominent risk factor for developing COPD.1,2

According to the research, current smokers were at the highest risk of having COPD, followed by former smokers. And the higher the number of cigarettes they had ever smoked, the more likely they were to develop COPD. Nonsmokers were the least likely to develop COPD.2

E-cigarettes carry the same risk

E-cigarettes are often marketed as a safer alternative to traditional tobacco products and a way to help adults stop smoking. But they still contain harmful chemicals and irritants that can damage the lungs.3

Unfortunately, the popularity of flavored e-cigarettes has led to their widespread use among teens and young people. This further increases their risk of lung problems down the road. Here are just some of the harmful substances that are in e-cigarettes:3

  • Nicotine
  • Ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs
  • Dangerous flavorings, like diacetyl, a chemical linked to lung disease
  • Cancer-causing chemicals
  • Heavy metals, such as nickel, tin, and lead

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Early diagnosis is key

Multiple studies show that “early COPD” is a growing concern. This is when the volume of forced air that a person can exhale is less than the lower limit of normal for people under 50.2,3

But many young people with early COPD may not have noticeable symptoms. So, they may not feel the need to get their lungs checked by a doctor. This can delay critical diagnosis and treatment. A 2021 study found that nearly 1 in 4 young adults with early COPD develop clinical COPD 10 years later.4

Reduce your risk with preventive measures

The single most effective way to prevent COPD is to avoid both smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke. This includes vapes and e-cigarettes because these can also damage the lungs.2,3

Consider taking preventive measures like the following:3,5

  • If you smoke, stop smoking.
  • Get regular health checkups to assess the health of your lungs.
  • Wear protective masks if you are in an environment with a lot of pollutants or harmful chemicals.
  • Make healthy lifestyle choices like exercising regularly and minimizing alcohol.
  • If your job exposes you to respiratory hazards, use appropriate protective gear. Ask your employer to provide proper ventilation and protective equipment.

If you are a young person and are concerned about your lung health, make an appointment with your doctor.

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

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