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What Increases Your Risk?

Things that increase your risk for COPD include those you can control, such as smoking, and others that you cannot control, such as a family history of COPD.

Risks you can control

Tobacco smoking is the most important risk factor for COPD. Compared to smoking, other risks are minor.

  • About 15 to 20 out of 100 cigarette smokers get COPD with symptoms.3 Some studies show that up to half of long-term smokers older than age 60 get COPD.4
  • Pipe and cigar smokers have less risk of getting COPD than cigarette smokers, but they still have more risk than nonsmokers.
  • Smoking both tobacco and marijuana increases the risk of COPD more than smoking either one.5
  • The risk for COPD increases with both the amount of tobacco you smoke each day and the number of years you have smoked.

See a graph on how smoking affects the ability to breathe.

For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

Risks you can partially control

  • Outside air pollution. Air pollution may make COPD worse. It may increase the risk of a flare-up, or COPD exacerbation, when your symptoms quickly get worse and stay worse. Try not to be outside when air pollution levels are high.
  • Indoor air pollution. Have good ventilation in your home to avoid indoor air pollution.
  • Secondhand smoke. It is not yet known whether secondhand smoke can lead to COPD. But a large study showed that children who were exposed to secondhand smoke were more likely to get emphysema than children who were not exposed.6 And people who are exposed to secondhand smoke for a long time are more likely to have breathing problems and respiratory diseases.
  • Occupational hazards. If your work exposes you to chemical fumes or dust, use safety equipment to reduce the amount of fumes and dust you breathe.

Risks you can't control

  • Family history of COPD. Some people may be more at risk than others for getting the disease, especially if they have low levels of the protein alpha-1 antitrypsin (alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency), a disorder that runs in families.
  • Preterm birth. Preterm babies usually need to have long-term oxygen therapy because their lungs are not fully developed. This therapy can cause lung damage (neonatal chronic lung disease) that can increase the risk for COPD later in life.
  • Asthma. People with asthma or with airways that narrow in response to environmental triggers, such as pollen, rarely progress to COPD.


This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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