How Smoking Increases Risk of COPD

Nick Rosen, MD
Medically reviewed by Nick Rosen, MDAugust 2nd, 2021

How Smoking Increases the Risk of COPD

As an inflammatory lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. COPD is a progressive disease that makes it difficult to breathe. It’s often caused by exposure to irritants that damage your lungs and airways. The prime example of such irritants is tobacco smoke, with smoking being the leading cause of COPD. Let’s explore how smoking increases one’s risk of developing COPD.

How COPD Affects the Lungs

The makeup of your lungs includes bronchial tubes that branch into thousands of smaller, thinner tubes called bronchioles. These tubes end in bunches of tiny round air sacs called alveoli. In normal, healthy lungs, the airways and air sacs are elastic or stretchy. Like a small balloon, each air sac fills up with air when you breathe in and deflates as you breathe out.

With COPD, less air is able to flow in and out of the airways because of one or more of the following:

  • The airways and air sacs lose their elastic quality.

  • The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed.

  • The airways make more mucus than usual and can become clogged.

  • The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed.

How Smoking Affects the Lungs

Cigarettes and other tobacco products contain more than 7,000 chemicals, many of which are harmful. Breathing in these toxins from either smoking cigarettes yourself or continuously being in the same environment as someone who does can weaken your lungs’ defense against infections, narrow air passages, cause swelling in air tubes, and destroy air sacs. All of these factors contribute towards an increased risk of developing COPD. In fact, about up to 90% of all COPD cases are the result of cigarette smoking.

Preventing COPD

Because smoking is the leading cause of COPD, the best way to prevent this condition is to not start smoking or quit if you already do. Other ways to reduce your risk of developing COPD include:

  • Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke

  • Protecting yourself against chemicals, dust, and fumes

  • Helping advocate for cleaner air

  • Avoiding close contact with people who have contagious respiratory infections

  • Testing your blood for Alpha-1-Antitrypsin, a genetic defect that increases your risk of COPD

Need Help Managing COPD?

People that do develop COPD often experience symptoms such as a chronic cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Plus, the disease is associated with sudden exacerbations or flare-ups of these symptoms. This can make it difficult to leave the house and receive care.

This is where DispatchHealth comes in. We supplement visits to the doctor’s office or urgent care clinic by offering in-home treatment for COPD exacerbations. Once you contact us, we’ll arrive a short time later to help alleviate your symptoms, fill any prescriptions, and communicate with your primary care physician so they’re kept up to date. We can be reached through our website, on our mobile app, or via phone.

For life-threatening and time-sensitive injuries and illnesses, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. DispatchHealth shouldn’t be used in a life-threatening emergency and doesn’t replace a primary care provider.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:



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