Skip Navigation Bar
NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

The Challenge of COPD

What Causes COPD?

Top Reasons Patients with COPD Symptoms Aren't Telling the Doctor. I didn't think of it; I don't want another 'quit smoking' message.; These problems will just go away in time; I have had these problems for years.

Long-term exposure to lung irritants that damage the lungs and the airways usually is the cause of COPD. In the United States, the most common irritant that causes COPD is cigarette smoke. Pipe, cigar, and other types of tobacco smoke also can cause COPD, especially if the smoke is inhaled.

Breathing in secondhand smoke, air pollution, or chemical fumes or dust from the environment or workplace also can contribute to COPD. (Secondhand smoke is smoke in the air from other people smoking.)

More rarely, a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency may play a role in causing COPD. People who have this condition have low levels of alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT)—a protein made in the liver.

Having a low level of the AAT protein can lead to lung damage and COPD if you're exposed to smoke or other lung irritants. If you have this condition and smoke, COPD can worsen very quickly.

Smokestack pollutionMan exhaling cigarette smoke

The major causes of COPD are smoking and chemical and other industrial air pollutants, including secondhand smoke from other people smoking.

Read More "The Challenge of COPD" Articles

Q&A: Grace Anne Koppel, Living Well with COPD / What is COPD? / What Causes COPD? / Getting Tested / Am I at Risk? / COPD Quiz

Fall 2014 Issue: Volume 9 Number 3 Page 6