Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term used to refer to chronic bronchitis and/or emphysema. COPD is a severe form of these respiratory diseases that steadily progresses causing the patient to loose lung capacity and function. The results are dramatic and life altering because patients are unable to perform physical activities and slowly loose the capacity to breathe. Estimates vary widely but approximately 24 to 30 million people are estimated to have COPD with approximately 12 to 16 million being diagnosed. The risk factors for COPD include smoking, certain occupations and pollutants.
My father-in-law smoked for about 30 years so he was at high risk for developing COPD since smoking is the reason for about 90% of the COPD cases in the United States. Even though not everyone who smokes will develop COPD, they are at an increased risk of developing COPD and should know the signs and symptoms of this disease. People who have a history of smoking are also at a higher risk of dying if they develop COPD than those with COPD that never smoked. Smoking damages a person’s lungs and has lasting effects even after someone stops smoking. The damage that smoking causes increases the risk of developing COPD even years after quitting as in the case of my father-in-law. Lungs are more susceptible to inflammation and disease and smoke erodes lung tissue causing lungs to become weaker. To decrease your risk of developing COPD, you should never smoke but if you do, you should quit immediately.
The other major cause of COPD is continued exposure to workplace fumes or irritants. These include, but are not limited to, such things as cadmium dust/fume, coal dust, cotton dust, welding fumes and petroleum. Certain occupations can increase a person’s risk for developing COPD such as foundry workers, coal mining, pottery/ceramic workers and welders. As with smoking, prolonged exposure to these dangerous fumes can damage the lungs making them more susceptible to disease. People who are employed in high-risk occupations for COPD should take preventive measures such as using breathing masks to reduce their risk of developing COPD. If you are employed in a high-risk field, inquire with your human resources department about precautions that should be taken to prevent COPD and what safety equipment is provided to reduce your risk.
Other risk factors for developing COPD may include second hand smoke, air pollution and genetic factors. Although these are minor, there is evidence that they still may contribute to the risk factor for developing COPD in some individuals.
Health and Safety Executive
American Association for Respiratory Care