Like many diseases, COPD is not caused by one particular source. Some risks we cannot control, such as the genetics we are born with, or how old we are. Some risks are due to the factors present in the environment, where we have somewhat more control over what we breathe in.
Our lungs are amazing organs. During one day, we’ve moved about 11,000 litres of air through them. This air contains all sorts of unwanted extras: dust, chemical fumes, toxins, bacteria and viruses. With all these exposures, it’s not surprising to find some of them can cause us long term damage.
Although our lung function naturally decreases as we age, COPD is a result of either an earlier decline, or a faster rate of decline in function. Another risk is decreased growth, or damage to the developing lungs, seen in teenage smoking for example. Research suggests teenage girls may be more vulnerable to the effects of teenage smoking than similarly aged boys.
As we just mentioned, smoking is without a doubt the most significant environmental risk for developing COPD, in youth and throughout our lives. Research shows that the biggest impact a smoker can have on the health of their lungs was by quitting cigarettes.
The link between second hand smoke and COPD is less clear, though it is still evident that the exposure is harmful, particularly to children, causing decreased lung function and more severe respiratory infections. There is also potential that severe respiratory infections in children may predispose them to develop COPD later on in life.
Just living in a city may increase the risk of developing COPD, with the pollution present in urban environments. While this link is not as strong as smoking, people who suffer from COPD are more likely to have worse complications, including death, in a highly polluted environment or during smog alerts.
Another type of pollution associated COPD is dusts, typically industrial in nature, such as coal dust, for example. You might be surprised to hear that these occupational exposures are still less likely to cause COPD than smoking, however!
While it may seem like risks for COPD are lurking everywhere, it’s important to remember that the absolute biggest risk for developing COPD is cigarette smoking, and the best way to avoid or improve COPD is to never smoke, or quit smoking as soon as possible.
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