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COPD: Reduce Your Risk

Could you be at risk for COPD? Learn how to avoid this serious lung disease.

image of woman breaking a cigarette

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of lung diseases that cause difficulty with breathing. COPD includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It is the third-leading cause of death in the United States and it currently affects about 15 million Americans.

Are you at risk for COPD?

A variety of factors may increase your chance of getting COPD. You may be able to avoid some of them, but others are out of your control. The risk factors for COPD include:

  • Smoking. This is the most common cause of COPD. People ages 40 and older who smoke or have a history of smoking, have the greatest chance of getting the disease.
  • Inhaling pollutants. Long-term exposure to things that can irritate your lungs, such as:
    • Certain chemicals, dust or fumes in your workplace or home
    • Secondhand smoke
    • Outdoor and indoor air pollution, including coal dust and fuel, such as wood burned for cooking and heating in poorly-ventilated homes
  • Heredity. An inherited condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency or AAT. AAT deficiency raises your risk for COPD, especially if you smoke. A genetic test can check for AAT deficiency and is done in people who have unexplained lung disease. It is also done for people who develop COPD at an early age.

What can you do to reduce your risk for COPD?

Whether or not you have COPD risk factors, you can take steps to help prevent it. Follow these tips and any others your doctor recommends:

  • Don't smoke. If you are a smoker, quit. It's the best thing you can do to help prevent more lung damage. For help:
    • Talk to your doctor.
    • Join a stop-smoking support group.
    • Consider nicotine-replacement or other smoking-cessation medications.
    • Visit or call 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669).
  • Avoid pollutants. Try to stay away from things like smoke and dust that could irritate your lungs. Stay inside as much as possible when the air quality outside is poor.

Important reminders for those with COPD

  • Create a COPD action plan with your doctor. Your plan will help guide you through daily management and lifestyle changes. It will also help learn how to recognize and respond to emergency symptoms.
  • Help prevent flare-ups by taking your medications as prescribed.
  • Get a flu shot each year. Also, avoid crowds during flu season.
  • Ask your doctor if a pneumococcal vaccine is right for you. This can help prevent a type of pneumonia that can be very serious, especially if you have lung disease.
  • Check with your doctor about a regular exercise program. This may help improve lung function and activity tolerance. Your doctor may also recommend a pulmonary rehab program.
  • Be sure to see your doctor as recommended and if your symptoms increase.

COPD takes a long time to develop. Symptoms may not show up until you're between the ages of 50 and 70. Taking action now may help you avoid it in the future.

By Louis Neipris, MD, Contributing Writer

Sources Global strategy for diagnosis, management, and prevention of COPD-2016. Accessed: January 6, 2016.
American Lung Association. Learn about COPD. Accessed: January 6, 2016.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Am I at risk? Accessed: January 6, 2016.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How is alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency diagnosed? Accessed: January 6, 2016.

Last Updated: January 11, 2016