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Ask Vanessa: Non-Smokers Can Also Get COPD

Vanessa Valerio

Condition Specific

Oct 11, 2023

4 min read

Dear Vanessa,

I was recently diagnosed with COPD. How did I develop this condition when I have been a non-smoker all my life? What can I do to minimize its symptoms and slow its progression? I am only 68 years old with four adorable grandchildren; I would like to see them grow up and lead happy, successful lives. Thank you.

- Anne

Dear Anne,

A COPD diagnosis can be a shock - even frustrating - to someone who has never lit a cigarette. Most people think of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as a smoker’s condition, and that’s partially true. According to Richard Casabury, PhD, MD, a professor of medicine ac the UCLA School of Medicine, “Roughly 80 to 90 percent of people with COPD in the United States are current or ex-smokers.”

Smoking has long been known to damage the lungs and is the leading cause of COPD, but it can also be caused by: long-term exposure to industrial pollutants; a history of respiratory infections (long under-treated asthma); and a genetic condition known as AAT deficiency. Alpha-1antitrypsin deficiency is the only known genetic abnormality at this time that can directly cause COPD. Other risk factors include second-hand smoke, age, gender, and socio-economic status.

COPD is a serious, yet common, illness in the elderly. It interferes with how the lungs work and makes breathing difficult. COPD develops slowly and can worsen over time. Symptoms may include: shortness of breath; wheezing; excess sputum production; chronic cough; weakness and exhaustion; and chest tightness.

Living with COPD can be tough, but you don’t have to settle for a life defined by it. Take your medications. Get regular flu shots and other needed immunizations to prevent respiratory infections. Maintain a healthy weight. Take part in a pulmonary rehabilitation program prescribed by your doctor; this might include exercise training, nutrition counseling, and education on special breathing techniques and other means of coping with COPD. Avoid irritants, such as airborne pollutants, second-hand smoke, and other toxins. Hand hygiene is important; wash your hands often. Do not let people with respiratory infections visit or come in contact with you. Live life fully by keeping up with activities that you enjoy, and staying involved with loved ones.

Vanessa Valerio


Vanessa Valerio

Chief Operating Officer

Passionate about living life and loving people fully. Has an adventurous spirit and an unusual craving for mangoes. Her mantra: Always be loving and kind.

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