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What Causes COPD?

Long-term exposure to lung irritants that damage the lungs and the airways usually is the cause of COPD.

In the United States, the most common irritant that causes COPD is cigarette smoke. Pipe, cigar, and other types of tobacco smoke also can cause COPD, especially if the smoke is inhaled.

Breathing in secondhand smoke, air pollution, or chemical fumes or dust from the environment or workplace also can contribute to COPD. (Secondhand smoke is smoke in the air from other people smoking.)

Rarely, a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency may play a role in causing COPD. People who have this condition have low levels of alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT)—a protein made in the liver.

Having a low level of the AAT protein can lead to lung damage and COPD if you're exposed to smoke or other lung irritants. If you have this condition and smoke, COPD can worsen very quickly.

Although uncommon, some people who have asthma can develop COPD. Asthma is a chronic (long-term) lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. Treatment usually can reverse the inflammation and narrowing. However, if not, COPD can develop.

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COPD in the News

November 15, 2013
NIH survey identifies barriers to effective patient-provider dialogue about COPD
Lack of communication between patients and health care providers about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) remains a major barrier to diagnosis of this disease, according to the results of a Web-based survey released today by the National Heart Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health.

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July 31, 2013 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.

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