Q: Can a person who’s never smoked develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?
A: Yes. Although being a smoker is the biggest risk factor for COPD, an estimated 25 percent of those who have the disease have never smoked. (The percentage runs higher in developing countries, where respiratory exposure to environmental toxins is more common.)
Secondhand cigarette smoke is a common culprit, 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, can contribute to the problem.
Most people with COPD are older, with incidence rising with age. Among all age groups, women (both smokers and never-smokers) are disproportionately affected by COPD. 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.
Other never-smokers more likely to develop COPD are people with frequent respiratory symptoms and childhood breathing problems. Up to 3 percent of people with COPD have a genetic mutation called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency that can result in emphysema.
If you’re experiencing wheezing, frequent shortness of breath, or a persistent cough, see your doctor. Medication and a pulmonary rehabilitation plan can treat COPD.
This article first appeared in the 2019 UC Berkeley Lung Disorders White Paper.
Also see Don’t Blow Off Shortness of Breath.