Can I Get COPD If I Have Never Smoked?

Not all patients with COPD have smoked cigarettes

Photo Credit: Rolf Bruderer/Blend Images/Getty Images.

Although smoking is well known to be a major risk factor for developing COPD, it certainly is not the only risk factor. Other risk factors are important to recognize, and may also contribute to development of COPD. This article will summarize some of these additional risk factors, some of which can be avoided, others which cannot.


Unfortunately, we can't pick our genes. Some patients who develop COPD have a genetic abnormality that causes COPD, called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.

Patients who have COPD but have never smoked, or who develop COPD at a young age should be tested (via a blood test) for alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency because patients with this form of COPD may be treated by having the deficient protein replaced via medication. It is possible that other genes are involved in COPD development and lung function decline. Research continues to investigate these potential genes.


This is another one we can't do much about. As we age, lung function declines, and therefore, simply aging can account for the development of COPD for elderly patients who may not have smoked in their lifetime.

​Particles and Fumes

Cigarettes aren’t the only dangerous inhalants that cause COPD. Tobacco pipes, water pipes and marijuana have all been linked to development of COPD. Second hand smoke and the resultant inhaled particles may also contribute to the development of COPD. Organic and inorganic dusts, chemicals and fumes may also lead to the development of COPD.

Animal residue, air pollution, crop residue, coal, open fires in poorly ventilated areas and biomass fuels (indoor stoves) are major causes of COPD worldwide.  Individuals who burn biomass fuels (for heat, cooking, etc) are at increased risk for developing COPD.


There is developing evidence that adults who have asthma are at higher risk for developing COPD than adults who do not have asthma (regardless of smoking history).

However, more research is needed for a firm conclusion of this because these diseases are often overlapping and mistaken for one another.

The Bottom Line

Not everyone who has COPD is or has been a cigarette smoker. Patients who have symptoms of COPD but have never smoked should discuss their symptoms with a healthcare provider and consider eliminating possible exposures to particles, fumes and other inhalants that may contribute to or cause COPD.


From the Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management and Prevention of COPD, Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) 2016. Available from:

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