COPD and Smoking: What’s the Connection?
Those who smoke are much more likely to develop symptoms of COPD, but secondhand smoke can also be the cause. Treatments are available; in some cases, your lung tissue can regenerate.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of diseases that impact the health of your lungs and your ability to breathe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 15.7 million. Americans have received a diagnosis of some form of COPD in 2013. They also estimate that many more Americans may have the condition and have not received a diagnosis.
The most common cause of COPD in the United States is smoking tobacco. Not everyone with COPD has a history of smoking, but smoking contributes to 80% to 90% of people with COPD, according to the American Lung Association. Let’s break down why COPD is linked to smoking and answer some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about this topic.
The effect of smoking on COPD
COPD, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is a progressive disease that limits your airflow and destroys tissue in your lungs. When repeated exposure to toxic substances triggers long-term inflammation in your lungs, COPD can be a result. COPD is most often diagnosed in people older than 40 years of age and in people who smoke.
Your lungs are amazing, self-cleaning organs that deliver oxygen to your body and expel carbon dioxide. When you smoke a cigarette, your lungs are exposed to several thousand different chemicals. Many of those chemicals are toxic to the tissues in your lungs, which is why your lung tissue gets inflamed.
When you smoke regularly, you’re consistently inflaming your lung tissue and actively destroying those cells. This limits the amount of air that your lungs can take in and how well carbon dioxide is expelled with every breath. In other words, it becomes harder to fully inhale and exhale.
Over time, this inflammation decreases your lungs’ efficiency at their job. When your lungs can’t move air well or fully expand how your body needs them to, the result can be COPD-related complications.
Does smoking cannabis affect COPD?
Research into the link between COPD and cannabis smoking is limited. But the rate of cannabis smoking in the U.S. population is increasing, which means that more data will probably be available soon. In 2021, a review of the medical literature concluded that more research in this area is needed in order to make more definite recommendations on this subject.
The current literature doesn’t strongly link cannabis smoking to COPD, or at least there doesn’t seem to be as strong as the link between COPD and smoking tobacco. This could be because cannabis cigarettes tend to lack the damaging chemicals of mass-produced tobacco cigarettes or because of the habits of cannabis smokers.
People who smoke cannabis approach the act of smoking differently. They may hold the smoke in for longer after inhaling and smoke hand-rolled cigarettes until they’re closer to the butt. They may also use a variety of devices to smoke, ranging from water pipes to small glass pipes, which can influence how the smoke gets to their lungs.
Smoking habits likely contribute to some level of lung inflammation, but there isn’t a large volume of published research to make sense of how cannabis smoking is linked to COPD. If you want to help scientists learn more about how cannabis affects our bodies, you may be able to participate in a clinical study on it.
Symptoms of smoking-related COPD
Symptoms of COPD that are related to tobacco smoking may include:
- a lingering cough that never completely goes away
- difficulty breathing during exercise or other physical activity
- tightness in your chest
- muscle aches
- unexplained weight loss
- wheezing or whistling when you breathe
Treatments for smoke-related COPD
COPD is a chronic disease. That means that it cannot be completely reversed.
Treatment management strategies and quitting smoking can limit the progression of your condition. If you get an early COPD diagnosis, you may be able to keep your COPD in the mild to moderate range of symptoms.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the best thing you can do to treat your COPD is to quit smoking. If you’re treating your COPD in other ways but continue to smoke, you might not see results, and the disease may continue to progress.
Other treatments for COPD can include:
- oxygen therapy
- prescription medication, such as bronchodilators
- an exercise routine approved by a doctor or healthcare professional that targets your cardiovascular health
FAQs about smoking and COPD
What happens if you smoke with COPD?
If you have COPD and start smoking or continue smoking, it can worsen your symptoms. It may also introduce new symptoms and make it harder to actively manage and treat your condition. COPD can progress more quickly in people who smoke.
How long do you have to smoke to get COPD?
Everyone’s individual risk of COPD varies according to several health and genetic factors. That makes it difficult to provide a baseline guess of “how long” a person would need to smoke before it caused a chronic lung condition. The longer you smoke becomes, the higher your risk of COPD becomes.
Do ex-smokers’ lungs heal?
Damage to your lungs may not be reversible, but that doesn’t mean that your lungs can’t experience some level of healing. Quitting smoking can improve your COPD symptoms significantly, and the progression of the disease may slow down or stop. Over time, some of your lung tissue may regenerate.
Click here to learn more about the timeline of how your body heals after you stop smoking.
Can you get COPD from secondhand smoke?
Yes. Some people with no personal smoking history at all have COPD. Regular exposure to environmental pollutants, exposure to secondhand smoke, and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency are all known contributing factors to the disease. Females appear to be more likely than males to develop COPD without ever smoking.
Do most smokers have COPD?
Most smokers don’t have COPD, but the data most often cited as evidence of this is a bit older. A large-scale Danish study published in 2006 followed 8,045 smokers for a period of 25 years. At the conclusion of the observation period, the researchers estimate that at least 25% of continuous smokers develop significant COPD, and 30% to 40% will develop some type of COPD.
But, again, your actual risk of developing COPD will vary according to genetic factors, your smoking habits, and your personal health history.
How to quit smoking: finding support
Smoking can be a difficult habit to quit. Quit coaches, support groups, helplines, over-the-counter nicotine alternatives, and prescription medications are all tools you can use to help you quit. Having a plan and resources at the ready can increase your chances of successfully quitting.
Resources available include:
- quitStart, a free app for your smartphone
- the CDC’s 800-QUI-TNOW, a nationwide portal to state-specific quit hotlines
- the American Cancer Society’s Quit for Life hotline, available 24/7: 866-QUIT-4-LIFE
- Nicotine Anonymous is a support group for those recovering from addiction to nicotine
For many people, smoking tobacco is the primary cause of their COPD. Exposure to the chemicals in tobacco cigarettes inflames your lung tissue and, over time, can cause your lungs to be less efficient and decrease your oxygen capacity.
Quitting smoking is the best thing that you can do to treat COPD and slow down the progression of your condition. Other lifestyle changes, such as aerobic exercise, can help, too. Oxygen therapy, prescription medication, and breathing techniques can be part of a regimen for COPD treatment and recovery.
If you have symptoms of COPD, have a family history of the disease, or are concerned about the effects of smoking on your lungs, speak with a healthcare professional. An early diagnosis and treatment plan can significantly improve your quality of life and keep the disease from progressing.
Last medically reviewed on December 21, 2022