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COPD is a common disease
Source: fovito /

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a frequent lung disorder of increasing worldwide importance. It is characterized by a continual deterioration of the pulmonary function. Air pollutants might play a role in the development and course of the disease.

Prevalence of COPD in Germany

According to estimates, in Germany ten to twelve percent of adults older than 40 years suffer from COPD. While in 2010 6.8 million people suffered from COPD in Germany, it is estimated that this number will increase to 7.9 million by 2030. Worldwide the prevalence of COPD is also increasing: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COPD will be the third most frequent cause of death by 2030.

Risk factors

It is known that the primary cause for the development of COPD is tobacco smoke - the inhalation of heavily contaminated fine dust. In 90% of those affected by COPD, active smoking plays a role. However, it has been shown that also passive smoking can be a triggering factor as well as air pollution at the workplace caused by chemicals and dust. COPD is one of the most prevalent occupational diseases in Germany.

Asthma in childhood, parental asthma, the smoking behaviour of the mother and frequent airway infections in the first years of childhood as well as a genetic disposition were identified as risk factors for the development of COPD.

Predominantly, COPD progresses often slowly from a chronic bronchitis and therefore tends to be underdiagnosed in the early stages. COPD is not curable and leads to a shortening of life expectancy. Symptoms include breathlessness, cough and sputum production especially during physical stress. Recurring bronchitis and other pulmonary diseases often occur in later stages of COPD. 

Possible triggers for a significant aggravation of COPD symptoms are manifold: low temperature and humidity, viral or bacterial infections, medications which have an inhibitory effect on respiration, or accompanying illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases or allergies.

Environmental risk factors

Fine and ultrafine particles from combustion processes or road traffic and other air pollutants such as NO2 or ozone can contribute to a health relevant air pollution and thus also influence the course of COPD. For example, there is a link between the number of hospital A&E visits due to COPD exacerbations and the temporarily increased air pollution caused by road traffic in cities. This is plausible, as other studies have shown that there is a link between air pollution and lung function. However, whether pollution of ambient air can also play a role in the development of COPD is scientifically controversial.

Also, volatile compounds from indoor sources, such as aldehydes or fragrances, can worsen an existing COPD condition. In particular, the trend to use indoor air fresheners to mask a poor air quality increases the concentration of VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds), thus worsening the situation for sensitive people.