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Causes

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, which is in the air from other people smoking; air pollution; or chemical fumes or dusts from the environment or workplace also can contribute to COPD.

Rarely, a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency may play a role in causing COPD. People who have this condition have low blood 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 are exposed to smoke or other lung irritants. If you have alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency and also smoke, COPD can worsen very quickly.

Some people who have asthma can develop COPD. Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. Treatment usually can reverse the inflammation and narrowing that occurs in asthma. 

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Updated: April 28, 2017