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What Is COPD and Who Is at Risk?

What Is COPD and Who Is at Risk?

More than 15 million Americans have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a group of inflammatory lung conditions, and it’s a leading cause of death in the United States.

COPD damages your lungs over time and limits your ability to breathe. It’s a progressive condition without a cure, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it.

Dr. David KamelharDr. Eric Teller, and our team at Kamelhar-Teller Pulmonology are dedicated to providing effective COPD care. In this blog post, we’re taking a closer look at what COPD is, what causes it, and who’s at risk.

Understanding COPD

When you take a breath, air travels from your throat down your trachea into the bronchial tubes inside your lungs. The bronchial tubes branch out into thousands of smaller tubes called bronchioles. Each bronchiole has tiny elastic air sacs on the ends called alveoli.

It is in the air sacs, or aveoli, that oxygen gets into your bloodstream and carbon dioxide leaves it. (In with the good out with the bad”). This is the “business end” of the lung.

The alveoli contract when you exhale. They expel old air, then expand to bring in fresh air when you inhale again.

COPD damages the structures of your lungs, interfering with this process and making it harder to breathe. The two most common forms of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Chronic bronchitis inflames your bronchial tubes. The inflammation increases mucus production in your lungs. It causes symptoms like chronic coughing and excessive mucus, which blocks your airways.

Emphysema damages your alveoli. The alveoli then can’t exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide as well. When you breath out, some air gets left behind 

On its own, COPD puts your health at risk. Unfortunately, having COPD also increases your risk of other serious health conditions, including heart disease and lung cancer.

Risk factors for COPD

COPD is a progressive disease. It can cause symptoms like shortness of breath, chronic cough, and chest tightness — but early-stage COPD usually doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms.

To protect your health, it’s important to know your risk and get treatment if you need it. Here are the biggest factors that could put you at risk of developing COPD: smoking, asthma, secondhand smoke, air pollutants, and genetics.


Long-term cigarette smoking is the biggest risk factor for COPD. Cigarettes create over 7,000 chemicals when they burn, and these chemicals damage your lungs and limit your ability to breathe.

Up to 90% of people with COPD get it from smoking cigarettes. Your risk goes up the longer you smoke and the more packs you smoke. Your risk of developing COPD may also be higher if you smoke pipes, cigars, or marijuana.


Asthma is a chronic condition that makes your airways inflamed and narrow. Severe or poorly controlled asthma can increase your risk of developing COPD. Your risk also goes up significantly if you have asthma and you smoke.

Exposure to secondhand smoke

Even if you don’t smoke, you could be at risk of developing COPD if you spend a lot of time around people who do. Secondhand smoke includes the smoke that comes from cigarette butts and the smoke that’s breathed out by smokers.

Secondhand smoke contains all the same chemicals that damage your airways. Breathing secondhand smoke over a long period of time can lead to COPD in nonsmokers.

Exposure to chemicals, dust, and fumes

Like secondhand smoke, pollutants in the air can cause COPD. Your risk may be higher if you’re frequently exposed to chemicals, dust, and fumes at work. Fumes from burning fuel at home can also increase your risk of COPD if your home isn’t properly ventilated.

Alpha-1 deficiency

Alpha-1 deficiency is a rare genetic disorder. If you have alpha-1 deficiency, your body can’t make a specific protein that protects your lungs. This genetic disorder can cause COPD and other complications, like liver disease.

What can you do to help yourself? 

No matter your current health, proactive care can lower your risk of developing COPD. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, it’s never too late to quit.

If you already have COPD, quitting smoking and seeking treatment can manage your symptoms and stop lung damage from progressing.

Evaluate your risk and get personalized care for COPD at Kamelhar-Teller Pulmonology. Contact us online or call our Midtown East office in New York City at 212-685-6611 to get started.

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