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How common is COPD?

More than 65 million people around the world have moderate or severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Experts predict that this number will continue to rise worldwide over the next 50 years.1-3

In the United States (US) alone, COPD seriously affects the lives of more than 6% of the population who are living with the disease – as well as the lives of their families, loved ones, and caregivers.

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

  • Up to 15 million US adults have a diagnosis of COPD.
  • About 10 million US adults have chronic bronchitis.
  • About 5 million US adults have emphysema.
  • COPD is the third most common cause of death in the US (after cancer and heart disease).
  • Rates of COPD are higher among adults in the Southeast and Midwest regions of the US.
  • COPD costs the country around $30 billion dollars a year in healthcare expenses.

Researchers think that there may be as many as 12 million more adults in the US with COPD, who do not yet know that they have it. This is because COPD is not often detected during the earlier stages.

Who is more likely to have COPD in the US?

According to research by the US government, the following groups of people are more likely to have COPD in the United States:4

  • Age: 65 to 74 years old
  • Ethnicity: non-Hispanic whites
  • Gender: women
  • Employment status: unemployed, on disability, or retired
  • Income status: lower income
  • Marital status: divorced, widowed, or separated
  • Smoking status: current or former smoker

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:1,4-5

  • Around 90% of COPD patients in the US have lung damage caused by smoking.
  • Around 20% of smokers will develop COPD during their lives.
  • People who smoke are about 12 times more likely to die from COPD than people who have never smoked.

It is important to know that smoking is not the only cause of COPD: In fact, 15% of people with COPD have never smoked. About 100,000 people in the US have a genetic condition, which they were born with, that can cause emphysema. However, this condition accounts for only about 3% of COPD cases.

Exposure to poor air quality in the workplace can also lead to COPD for both smokers and non-smokers. This kind of exposure causes about 20% of the total number of COPD cases in the US. The rate is even higher (30%) among non-smokers who develop COPD.

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.

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 now just as likely as men to have COPD worldwide.3

In the US, the number of women with COPD has also increased significantly over the past ten years:

  • The number of women in the US diagnosed with emphysema has increased by more than 60%.
  • Women in the US are two times more likely to have chronic bronchitis than men.
  • Compared to men, women have a higher rate of mortality due to COPD.
Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: July 2015.
  1. World Health Organization. “Burden of COPD.” Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Available at: [Accessed 21 November 2014.]
  2. American Lung Association. Trends in COPD (Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema): Morbidity and Mortality. March 2013.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Available at: Accessed 30 November 2014.]
  4. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “Are you at risk for COPD?” Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. September 2013. Available at: [Accessed 30 November 2014.]
  5. Mayo Clinic. “Causes.” COPD. Available at: [Accessed 2 December 2014.]