Not just smoking: The everyday hazards linked with rise in deadly COPD

Smoking is a leading cause of COPD, but new research shows an alarming number of people being diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease are non-smokers. Source: Getty

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term given to a series of chronic lung diseases that impact the airways and lungs. While smoking is known to increase the risk of COPD conditions including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma, a new study shows the prevalence of non-smokers with COPD is also increasing.

Worldwide, 64 million people are living with COPD, with the World Health Organisation predicting it will be the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2030. While quitting smoking can slow the progress of the disease and increase the effectiveness of treatments, a study presented at the CHEST Congress Thailand 2019 by researchers at the American College of Chest Physicians shows smoking isn’t the only factor when it comes to COPD and people who don’t smoke cigarettes are increasingly being diagnosed.

Researchers analysed 180 non-smoking patients with COPD between 2016 and 2018. Each patient answered the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease guild questions and were categorised into either mild, moderate, severe or very severe COPD.

Researchers also noticed hypertension was the most common additional condition co-occurring with COPD at 34.4 per cent, followed by diabetes mellitus at 17.8 per cent.

Read more: Wheezy in winter? Half of the Aussies with COPD don’t know they have it

More than half of patients, 61 per cent, lived in rural areas, while 38 per cent were from urban areas. Interestingly, 46 per cent of patients had exposure to biomass gas and 26 per cent had exposure to toxic gasses. This supports previous studies which show exposure to biomass fuel is a major contributing factor of COPD and puts people from rural areas at higher risk of developing it.

“Exposure to industrial smoke, environmental pollution and household smoke are major contributors for COPD in non-smokers,” lead researcher Sameer Arbat said in a statement. “There is a need to study this subset of non-smokers having COPD further to determine the true cause of this increase.”

Not everyone who smokes develops COPD, but most people diagnosed currently smoke, smoked in the past or have been exposed to passive smoking, according to the Lung Foundation Australia. Environmental factors including long-term exposure to dust, gas, chemical fumes, smoke and air pollution can increase the risk, while some people are diagnosed because of genetics, meaning they develop COPD without exposure to smoke or pollutants.

Read more: Recognising a COPD ‘flare up’ can be life-saving: Here’s how to do it

COPD occurs when the airways and lungs become damaged after long-term exposure to irritants. The airways narrow over time, making it difficult to breathe and increasing mucus levels and the urgency to cough. One in seven Aussies over 40 have some form of COPD, but half are unaware they’re living with the condition.

There is currently no cure, but quitting smoking, staying healthy and active, keeping vaccinations up to date and having regular visits with a GP can help people manage symptoms and reduce the risk of flare-ups. Medication may also be prescribed to keep symptoms at bay.

Do you know someone who is impacted by COPD? How do they reduce the risk of a flare-up?

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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