Causes of COPD
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more commonly known as COPD, is a progressive, inflammatory lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. Because of this difficulty, oxygen delivery to the brain and body are reduced.
More than Smoking
COPD develops from “background” lung diseases like asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, the first a result of inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the second caused by the destruction of the air sacs, or alveoli, of the lungs. These diseases lay a foundation for additional damage to the lungs when a COPD patient is exposed to:
• Smoking, tobacco and other substances like marijuana and crack cocaine
• Air pollutants like second-hand smoke, chemicals, fumes and dust
• Genetic factors, most notably alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency
COPD Causes Vary Across Regions
In the developed world, COPD is most often the result of smoking. Smokers will almost always have impaired lung function, but only 25 percent develop the hallmark symptoms of COPD. Those who smoke both tobacco and marijuana have an increased risk of COPD. Those who regularly inhale secondhand smoke are equally as likely to have impaired lungs which develop COPD.
Another huge factor in COPD is air pollution. In Beijing, in late November and early December of 2015, air pollution reached the highest level it has ever been – more than 20 times the amount the World Health Organization (WHO) considers safe. Even more disturbing than this 611 parts-per-million (ppm) reading – 311 points higher than the WHO even charts – was the particulate matter size. Particles 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5) are easily drawn into the lungs and, once there, have lasting effects on lungs and human health.
In both developed and developing nations, some careers may promote COPD. For example, coal miners, those who work with aerosolized chemicals (spray paint, sealants and agricultural sprays), and those who work in smoky and/or dusty factories are all at risk for COPD. Asbestos exposure, once a leading cause of COPD and other lung deficiencies, has been reduced worldwide by the banning or limiting of asbestos products.
A final risk factor for developing COPD is frequent lower respiratory (lung) infections during childhood and adolescence. Infants born prematurely may also develop neonatal chronic lung disease, which can lead to COPD in later years.
In Developing Nations
In the developing world, COPD is often caused by exposure to burning fuel used to cook and heat homes. Because these nations have less to spend on everything, including healthcare, the impact is devastating. In fact, almost 90 percent of the COPD deaths reported in 2005 came from countries of low- to mid-income. In 2012, more than three million people died of COPD globally.
A handful of people may develop COPD from other lung conditions, even if they don’t smoke. However, extensive testing and accurate reading of the results of tests is essential to determine if the COPD is the result of industrial irritants like asbestos particles or coal dust, or an inherited but rare disease like alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is causing COPD.
Reference: Halbert RJ, Natoli JL, Gano A, et al. Global burden of COPD: systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur Respir J 2006;28:523-32.