In general, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is thought of being a disease of smokers and former smokers. However, the truth is that about 25% of COPD patients have never smoked actually.
So, how is that possible? Indeed, several risk factors for nonsmokers contribute to the condition, including exposure to toxins, genetic predisposition, and respiratory infections. Luckily, COPD is less severe in nonsmokers but still can cause coughing and shortness of breath.
COPD Symptoms in Nonsmokers
COPD can result in many respiratory effects although there’s no history of smoking. Basically, the symptoms are the same as in those who smoke or used to smoke. Still, the overall effects are milder in nonsmokers.
Common COPD symptoms in nonsmokers are the following:
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
- Dry persistent cough
- Productive cough
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Chest tightness
- Sleeping issues
COPD Causes in Nonsmokers
COPD in nonsmokers is closely linked with several risk factors, and the more risk factors you have, the higher the likelihood of developing COPD. Here are the most common causes of COPD in never smokers:
Secondhand Smoke – Exposure to secondhand smoke at any time in life is connected with a higher risk of developing COPD. Indeed, it is one of the leading COPD causes in nonsmokers.
Pollution – Air pollution, especially in industrialized areas, has been also associated with COPD development in those who don’t smoke. Indoor air pollution contributes too, such as biomass fuel heating, paints, fumes from gasoline, etc.
Occupational Exposures – People who are exposed to coal, silica, industrial waste, dust, fumes, and gases at their workplace have an increased chance of getting COPD.
Asthma – Asthma highly increases the risk of COPD. Indeed, there’s also a condition characterized by symptoms of both asthma and COPD called asthma chronic obstructive pulmonary disease overlap syndrome (ACOS).
Lung Infections – Frequent respiratory infections can take a toll on lung function permanently. That said, recurrent childhood lung infections increase the risk of COPD in nonsmokers.
Rheumatoid Arthritis – This autoimmune condition is characterized by inflammation which can negatively affect the lungs and thus lead to a higher likelihood of developing COPD.
Genetics – Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is a rare genetic condition that can lead to the development of emphysema which is a type of COPD.
In short, all of the above-listed risk factors can permanently damage the lungs. Plus, COPD risk factors in nonsmokers can exaggerate COPD symptoms in smokers as well.
COPD Treatment in Nonsmokers
The main focus of COPD treatment in smokers is quitting smoking of course, while the main focus of COPD treatment in nonsmokers is avoiding toxin exposure. Apart from this difference, most treatment options remain the same for both groups, which include:
There are many different types of medication your doctor may prescribe, including:
- Fast-acting bronchodilators – medications used to widen the bronchi in case of inflamed or blocked lungs due to COPD.
- Long-acting bronchodilators – long-acting beta-agonists (LABA) and long-acting anticholinergics/muscarinic antagonists (LAMA) are two types of long-acting bronchodilators used in people who have shortness of breath.
- Steroids – if an active inflammation is worsening COPD or you have an ongoing inflammatory reaction to a toxin, steroids and other anti-inflammatory medications can help.
Oxygen Supplementation and Respiratory Assistance
If COPD interferes with the ability to breathe, these patients may need oxygen therapy which involves using an oxygen tank and a nose mask or tubes to breathe in oxygen. And, if the condition progresses and gets to late-stage COPD which weakens inspiratory muscles, mechanical ventilation assistance may be the best treatment option.
Last but not least, pulmonary rehabilitation is also an effective COPD treatment option. It involves an exercise plan that improves breathing abilities and exercise tolerance. It is best when done with a respiratory therapist who will progressively increase the amount of physical activity, muscle strengthening, and respiratory exercises.