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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - Causes

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)  happens when the lungs and airways become damaged and inflamed.

It's usually associated with long-term exposure to something harmful such as cigarette smoke.

Things that can increase your risk of developing COPD include:

  • smoking
  • fumes and dust, especially at work
  • air pollution
  • genetics


Smoking is the main cause of COPD and is thought to be responsible for around 9 in every 10 cases.

The harmful chemicals in smoke can damage the lining of the lungs and airways. Stopping smoking can help stop COPD from getting worse.

Breathing in other people's smoke (passive smoking) may increase your risk of COPD.

Get help to quit smoking

Fumes and dust at work

Exposure to certain types of dust and chemicals at work may damage the lungs and increase your risk of COPD.

Things that have been linked to COPD include:

  • cadmium dust and fumes found in metal, plastic and battery production
  • grain and flour dust
  • silica dust found in concrete, stone or sand-based materials
  • welding fumes
  • isocyanates found in paints, glues and insulation materials
  • coal dust

The risk of COPD is even higher if you breathe in dust or fumes in the workplace and you also smoke.

Air pollution

Exposure to air pollution over a long period can affect how well the lungs work. Some research has suggested it could increase your risk of COPD.

We do not fully know if there is a link between air pollution and COPD yet and research is continuing.


You're more likely to develop COPD if you smoke and have a close relative with the condition. This suggests that some people's genes may make them more vulnerable to the condition.

Some patients with COPD have a genetic tendency to develop a condition called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.

Alpha-1-antitrypsin is a substance that protects your lungs. Without it, the lungs are more vulnerable to damage.

People who have an alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency usually develop COPD at a younger age.

Read more about Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency

Page last reviewed: 17 December 2021
Next review due: 17 December 2024

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 9.