Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a long-term condition that causes inflammation in the lungs, damaged lung tissue and a narrowing of the airways, making breathing difficult.

There are many different types of the condition, although little is known about what causes this variation and the best way to manage the different versions of the disease.

Last Update 06/04/2021
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COPD is caused by factors that trigger inflammation in the lungs. These include:

Tobacco smoke

This is the main risk factor for COPD. About 40-50% of lifelong smokers will develop COPD, compared with 10% of people who have never smoked. Not all smokers will develop the condition, which suggests that genetics also play a part in making some people more susceptible than others.

Occupational exposure

Around 15-20% of COPD cases are associated with exposures to occupational dust, chemicals, vapours or other airborne pollutants in the workplace that can trigger COPD. Find out more about occupational risk factors.

Outdoor and indoor air pollution

People with COPD are at a high risk of their symptoms worsening with high levels of outdoor air pollution. Indoor air pollution from using biomass fuels for cooking and heating is also a risk factor for the development of COPD. Find out more about outdoor and indoor air pollution.

Socioeconomic status

Research has shown that the risk of developing COPD is associated with lower educational and income levels. Experts believe this is due to factors such as nutrition, overcrowding and air pollution.

Early life and environmental factors

Lung infections in early life and mothers who smoke are important risk factors for COPD.

Genetic factors

The make-up of a person’s genes can mean they are more susceptible to developing COPD. The most researched genetic problem linked with COPD is a condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency; an inherited condition where a person lacks a protein known as alpha-1 antitrypsin.


Identifying the risk factors, and preventing exposure to these factors, is the most important step in preventing the disease. This includes:

  • Encouraging people to quit smoking
  • Preventing exposure to passive smoke for unborn babies and infants
  • Reducing exposure to indoor air pollution from biomass fuels in developing countries
  • Preventing COPD exacerbations


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