How common is COPD?

It has been estimated that more than 250 million people in the world may have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and over 65 million of these cases are moderate to severe.1,2 Since it’s difficult to survey national and global populations, these numbers are just estimates, and often use self-reported data or past medical records. Because of this, some experts think that the number of individuals with COPD may be even higher than expected, both around the world and in the United States (US).

COPD may also be more difficult to diagnose when it’s in its earlier stages, which may lead to many others having the condition and not being aware of it yet. Some estimates suggest that as many as 12 million people in the US are living with COPD, but are undiagnosed at this time.3 Conditions like chronic bronchitis and emphysema contribute to COPD, and are also often considered when talking about COPD diagnoses and individuals that are at risk.4

The US government carries out studies to gather data about the impact of COPD around the country, and reports these statistics:5-7

  • Over 16 million US adults have a diagnosis of COPD.
  • About 9 million US adults were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis in 2017.
  • About 3.5 million US adults were diagnosed with emphysema in 2017.
  • COPD is the cause of over 7 million emergency department visits each year.
  • In 2010, COPD cost the country around $30 billion dollars a year in healthcare expenses, and this number is expected to reach around $50 billion by 2020.

COPD is the fourth most common cause of mortality in the US, as well as the fourth leading cause of disability.5,7 It has been estimated that about 40 out of every 100,000 deaths in the US are related to COPD.7,8 However, mortality from COPD may be preventable in many cases, as roughly 80% of all cases are related to smoking tobacco.6

Who is more likely to have COPD in the US?

According to current research, the following groups of people are more likely to have COPD in the United States:6, 9-11

  • Age: over 40 years old, with increasing prevalence between 65 to 74 years old
  • Gender: women
  • Employment status: unemployed, on disability, or retired
  • Income status: lower income
  • Smoking status: current or former smoker

Location may also play a role in an individual’s likelihood of developing COPD. Rates of COPD vary across the country, but generally, are higher among adults in the Southeast and Midwest regions of the US.6,8,12 Additionally, individuals in rural areas are almost twice as likely as individuals in metropolitan areas to have the condition.5,10

When it comes to race and/or ethnicity and COPD, the relationships aren’t as clear. Previous estimates have suggested that Caucasian Americans are more likely to have COPD, however, others have speculated that the differences may not be as significant as once thought. Additionally, COPD may develop in different ways across various race or ethnic groups. For example, African Americans may develop COPD earlier and with a smoking history that is less than individuals with COPD of other races. More information is needed to determine any correlations or differences between specific races and/or ethnicities and COPD.9,13

What are the most common causes of COPD?

In middle- and higher-income countries, such as the United States and countries in Europe, smoking tobacco is the most common cause of COPD by far, with roughly 75-80% of cases being related to past or current tobacco use.6 Roughly 20-30% of all smokers will develop COPD at some point in their lifetime, and an individual’s risk is based on a variety of things, including their environment, genetics, and other risk factors they may possess.4

It is important to know that smoking is not the only cause of COPD: Some estimates have suggested that 10-25% or more of people with COPD have never smoked.3,144

Exposure to poor air quality in the workplace can also lead to COPD for both smokers and non-smokers. In lower-income countries – such as parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa – burning certain kinds of fuel inside the home causes COPD for millions of people. Women and children are more likely to be affected by COPD caused by this kind of indoor pollution.1

Does COPD affect men and women at different rates?

In the past, men were more likely to develop COPD than women. This may have been because men were more likely to be smokers. They were also more likely to have jobs in a workplace where they could be exposed to toxic irritants that can cause COPD. However, in recent years the number of women diagnosed with COPD has been much higher, so that women are slightly more likely to be diagnosed with the condition than their male counterparts.6 Specifically, of those with COPD, roughly 56% are women and 44% are men.6 Additionally, compared to men, women have a higher rate of mortality due to COPD.3,8,12 The reasons for these differences between men and women are not completely understood and needs to be investigated further.

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Last reviewed: April 2019.