How Do You Get Emphysema?

Ask a Doctor

My grandpa worked at a concrete plant all his life and was never a cigarette smoker. Even though he didn’t use tobacco, his doctor just diagnosed him with chronic obstructive pulmonary diseaseemphysema, specifically – after a month of coughing fits that never got better. I though you could only get emphysema from smoking. Is it possible my grandpa’s case is work-related? How do you get emphysema?

Doctor’s Response

The main cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema, is smoking. Up to 90% of people with COPD are smokers, though non-smokers can also develop the condition.

Other causes of COPD and emphysema include the environment. Exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, dust, chemicals (often work-related) and fumes can lead to COPD.

Some people have a rare form of COPD called alpha-1 deficiency-related emphysema, which is caused by a genetic condition that affects the body's ability to produce a protein that protects the lungs.

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American Lung Association. What Causes COPD. 13 March 2018. 3 January 2019 .