Nonsmokers Are at Risk for COPD, Too

COPD in Non-Smokers

While chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is oftentimes associated with adults who identify as smokers, a recent report from the CDC linked the disease to people who have never touched a tobacco product. The report notes that an estimated 2.4 million U.S. citizens who never smoked were diagnosed with COPD between 2013 and 2017. But how is this possible? The findings concluded that those who had the disease during this time period were all working adults, posing the threat of COPD-causing toxins found in workplaces. 

An estimated 24% of adults diagnosed with COPD have never come in contact with tobacco-related products. Some of these may have a rare genetic disease called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, causing COPD, but it is thought that the majority develop COPD through airborne exposures (often at their workplace). Exposures to dust, fumes, gases, vapors, and secondhand smoke have all been linked to COPD in non-smoking adults, and the presence of these toxins varies according to industry. 

Ruling Out COPD

Shortness of breath is common in older adults, and many people simply dismiss this symptom as a function of getting older or losing fitness. However, shortness of breath and related breathing symptoms may be due to the presence of COPD, even for those adults who do not have a smoking history.  

A persistent dry or wet cough and shortness of breath when performing physically demanding activities are early symptoms commonly found in those who have COPD. The key to treating the disease as effectively as possible is to catch it early. Because the CDC has identified so many cases of COPD in non-smokers, it is highly encouraged that all adults with symptoms of shortness of breath get a simple lung function test, even if they have no history of tobacco use. 

The Value of Spirometry Testing

A spirometry test is a widely-used lung function test that evaluates the health of one’s lungs by measuring inhalation and exhalation. While getting a spirometry test may feel like a chore, prioritizing one’s lung health is more important than ever as occupational risk factors for COPD are being increasingly recognized. 

A simple lung function test can tell whether or not your lungs are normal compared to what is expected for someone of the same age, sex, and height as you. If you experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing during your daily living, you can ask your physician to refer you for a lung function test. Alternatively, some centers do spirometry tests for research at no cost to the subject. One such center is the PERF-supported Rehabilitation Clinical Trials Center at The Lundquist Institute in Torrance, CA. After the test, you will be given a copy of your results to take to your doctor. If the test shows normal lung function – that’s great! Your results also establish a “baseline” that details your lung function numbers at a point in your life when your lungs are healthy. If you become ill later, the doctor will then be able to see how much your lung function has declined over time and treat your lungs appropriately. For those who test positive for COPD, treatment is available. Inhalers, medications, and pulmonary rehabilitation are all forms of treatment for those affected by the disease and are effective at reducing symptoms of shortness of breath. Many of these treatments are available as low-cost generic prescriptions.  

So what are you waiting for? Make lung function health a priority this year by getting a spirometry test today. You can learn more about the importance of spirometry testing for diagnosing COPD, asthma or other lung conditions on our website. If you are interested in contributing to research to help those who suffer from breathing difficulties, why not volunteer to participate in a research study? You never know, you might learn things about your own health that you didn’t know before! Otherwise, please support the PERF mission and make a donation to help fund ongoing COPD research.