Can a Nonsmoker Develop COPD?

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Yes. COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, comprises several diseases-emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and some types of asthma-that can obstruct airflow and impede breathing. Although being a smoker is the biggest risk factor for COPD, it’s estimated that people who have never smoked represent about 25 percent of those who have the disease. (The percentage runs higher in developing countries where respiratory exposure to toxins is more common.)

Secondhand cigarette smoke is a common culprit in the development of COPD in never-smokers, but researchers also point to occupational and environmental toxins. Jobs involving exposure to various kinds of dust and gases, such as farming, milling, mining, steelwork, welding, firefighting, and dry cleaning, appear to contribute to the problem.

Most people who have COPD are older, with incidence rising with age. Among all age groups, however, women are disproportionately affected by COPD; this is true of never-smokers as well as smokers. Researchers have found that women’s smaller average size may render any smoke or other toxin inhaled more concentrated and thus more potent. Differences in the way women and men process cigarette smoke may make it more toxic to women. Hormonal factors could play a role as well. Other never-smokers more likely to be afflicted with COPD are people with frequent respiratory symptoms and childhood breathing problems. About 1 percent of people with COPD have a genetic mutation called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency that can result in emphysema.

If you’re experiencing a cough that won’t quit, wheezing, or frequent shortness of breath, see your doctor. Medication and a pulmonary rehabilitation plan can treat COPD.