6 causes of lung disease in non-smokers

While smoking is a big risk factor for COPD, there are many other causes.
While smoking is a big risk factor for COPD, there are many other causes.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a collective term that is used to describe a series of lung conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD is categorised as an obstruction of the airflow that can’t be treated with an inhaler.

According to previous Health24 reports, the biggest risk factor for COPD is cigarette smoke. But not only smokers suffer the debilitating consequences of COPD. There are a number of factors that can increase a non-smoker’s risk of COPD:

1. Environmental factors

According to Professor JR Joubert, a pulmonologist from Stellenbosch, environmental risk factors such as smoke from coal and wood fires and exposure to dust, fumes and vapour play a big role in the development of COPD. The chronic inhalation of noxious particles and gas tends to stimulate inflammation of the lungs over a prolonged period of time, resulting in progressive damage to lung tissue.

Research published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), at least 15% of COPD cases result from conditions in the workplace where employees are exposed to noxious particles and gas. Workers are exposed to coal mine dust and crystalline silica especially in the mining and construction industries. Other industries linked to an increased risk of COPD included rubber, plastic and leather manufacturing, textile manufacturing and building services.  

What you can do: Ensure that your workspace is properly ventilated. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that there should be proper containment between harmful substances and people. If you know that your workplace is hazardous, go for regular check-ups, and wear proper protective gear while working.

2. Secondhand smoke

Secondhand smoke exposure has been deemed a risk factor for a number of respiratory ailments, sinusitis and allergic rhinitis. Conclusions of studies researching the effect of secondhand smoke on COPD have been divided, some claiming that secondhand smoke does not increase the prevalence of COPD. However, the American Lung Association claims that there are an estimated 40 000 deaths related to secondhand smoke each year and that secondhand smoke can exacerbate respiratory problems.

What you can do: Encourage family members to quit smoking, don’t allow cigarette smoke inside confined indoor spaces and don’t sit in smoking areas in restaurants and bars. If you are a smoker yourself, be mindful about smoking around family members and friends, especially young children.

3. Previous respiratory illnesses

Having had respiratory illnesses such as asthma or bronchitis during childhood or as an adult can increase your risk for non-smoking related COPD. According to a study published in the journal Lung, COPD diagnosed by a physician occurred in an estimated 29% of the population with a history of asthma. The prevalence of COPD was higher in adults with active asthma, even if they were lifetime non-smokers.

What you can do: Keep a close eye on any new respiratory symptoms if you currently suffer from asthma. Keep your asthma symptoms in check and regularly go for medical checkups to rule out COPD. 

4. HIV

There is evidence that shows that HIV, either on its own or along with secondary infections and tuberculosis, could increase the risk of COPD. This could be either due to repeated respiratory infections, the effect of the virus on lung tissue or the result of decreased immunity, but the exact cause needs to be investigated in more detail, says Prof Joubert.

What you can do: Get the appropriate healthcare to control secondary infections related to HIV.

5. Genetic factors

A deficiency in a protein made in the liver can cause up to 5% of COPD cases. This protein is called alpha-1 antitrypsin and the deficiency is caused by various genetic factors.

What you can do: Be aware of your family’s health history and check if there are any lung conditions, especially in those who are non-smokers.

6. Age

People over the age of 40 have a higher risk of COPD, and the risk increases as you get older. There is increasing evidence that the ageing process can cause lung abnormalities linked to COPD.

What you can do: Don’t ignore symptoms that might signal respiratory problems. Go to the doctor if you experience wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. 

Image credit: iStock 

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