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My COPD's not smoking-related, so stop assuming it is

20% of people with COPD have never smoked. Dr. Shobha shares her story.

Dr Shobha

Although I’ve never smoked, I was diagnosed with COPD in 1998 - the same year I was meant to retire from my job as an anaesthetist.

I was so busy, and it came on so gradually that I didn’t even realise. It happened after I’d been to India, where I'd visited the factory where my son-in-law was working. I could tell that being inside the factory wasn’t good for me; perhaps it was the dust affecting my throat.

On my way back to the UK, I started to feel ill on the plane, coughing and shivering. Within 24 hours of landing, I was in hospital.

It was severe pneumonia, and I was kept in for 10 days with a very high fever. After that, my COPD slowly began to show. When I was eventually diagnosed, I saw my X-ray and wondered how on earth I was alive because my right lung seemed to hardly be there. It was that bad.

COPD is so debilitating 

Nowadays, I get breathless so easily - even if I just talk for a few minutes.

I can barely walk. That used to mainly be due to my arthritis, but since I had my knees replaced in 1996, I’ve realised how much more debilitating my COPD is. You can’t just take a painkiller and carry on.

Sometimes, I notice my breathing when I talk. It sounds so bad that I can't believe it's me making that noise. It sounds like someone else.

I don't know what's caused my COPD

Since I used to work as a doctor, I'm always asking myself how I managed to develop such severe COPD.

Apart from pneumonia, which I also had as a teenager, part of me thinks it may have been caused by passive smoking. In the 70s, I used to commute on the Paris metro and the London underground, before the smoking ban, and you can imagine what the trains were like!

Another part of me wonders if my work with anaesthetic had anything to do with it.

I used to work in India in the 50s when open anaesthetic was the method, so I would pour anaesthetic on a mask over my patient’s face. When I would come home from work, I would smell so strongly of chemicals that my young children wouldn’t even hug me. 

We need to research non-smoking-related COPD more

The moment you say you have COPD, people just assume that you smoked. It always seems to be your fault when you have this disease, and that makes me so angry. 20% of people with COPD have never smoked. 

I want more people to come forward to talk about COPD, without talking about smoking.

I’ve been to a number of talks on COPD, but no one really seems to be interested in why non-smokers develop this condition. People should do more research on this subject. It's a real bone of contention for me.

I want more people to come forward to talk about COPD, without talking about smoking-related causes. Why don’t we hear about people exposed to dust, fumes and chemicals at work? This can cause COPD, and so can other harmful substances, like air pollution, if you breathe them in for a long time. We need to know more about this, so we can stop people damaging their lungs.

I still love working

Although I get breathless very easily, I don’t let my COPD stop me from living a really busy life. I love working! It makes me very happy.

I do a lot of voluntary work, and participate so often in local council meetings that people say, 'go talk to Shobha, she knows what you need to know!' In fact, I’ve just been awarded an MBE for all my work with bringing the community together! I’ve also been on BBC’s The Big Questions.

Of course, sometimes my COPD is very frustrating, and it’s just willpower that keeps me going. I think I’m a very strong person. I’ve never walked away from anything. I’ve never said, 'I can’t do this'.

Find out more about COPD


I had COPD after getting pneumonia. My job before i retired was in an office.i am on oxygen theropy.
I know people also with COPD that never smoked , but from harmful chemicals that breathed in on the job. Many people in the automotive industry are among some .
Thank you for sharing your story, it’s so good to hear from people who never smoked... I too get very cross that it’s an automatic assumption that all with copd are current or ex smokers x
I was moved to add my story to that of Dr Shobha as I am a sufferer and also a non-smoker which makes my condition even more frustrating. I was raised in the countryside of middle England after which I studied, lived and worked in a city.  I feel passive smoking played a large part in the developmental stage of my resperitory condition prior to the smoking ban.  Perhaps working in a dusty environment contributed too.  People do not realise the amount of dust generated in a library and library basement! During the 1970s I was in the Middle East.  In the early 1980s following the birth of my son I had a bad reaction to an anaesthetic and following tests bronchiectasis was diagnosed.  I have suffered several bouts of pneumonia and one bout of empyema.  I am one of the lucky ones who has survived and I still have a good quality of life.  I try to keep healthy and fit but sometimes the tiredness takes over.  I have a chronic hacking and productive cough that everyone assumes is caused by smoking. It is not.  I fully support Dr Shobha in her quest to encourage research into COPD in non-smokers as no one can explain to me why I have developed a COPD type condition.  I did query why I developed empyema and I was told it was just bad luck which does not install confidence as each time I develop a chest infection I worry about the consequences.  
I have not smoked for 60 year. Prior to that I did very little, 20 per week at most. Like you , I can only walk 20 yards.
I have had this for many years. Steroids on/off every month. My breathing is very bad on minimal movement. My Consultant says it cant be COPD as I have never smoked. I feel it is, when I was young at home my parents and family all smoked in the house. Sometimes I can remember there being a haze in the room with all the smoke. Also as a child I lived near the Roberts asbestos factory in Leeds. We used to play in the ''snow'' outside of the building which was just a white powder. My consultant says this would not have caused it. I live every days with this debilitating condition and sometimes it's hard to carry on. Its just a life of steroids inhalers and breathlessness.
I did smoke and one doctor made me feel as if it was completely my fault. I was born to two smoking parents, who had bad chests, from my baby days I suffered with my chest. I lived through the fog and smog of the 50's which did a lot damage. I try to get on with my life I also volunteer , but everyday feels like a uphill walk.
What a wonderful woman and not afraid to mention c.o.p.d . and being a non smoker in the same sentence. I have spent most of my 67 years with broncihectisis telling people it wasn't caused by smoking....she is a breath of fresh air.
Dear doctor shobha,my COPD Was not through smoking it was caused when I was a baby at Two. Weeks old i caught phemonia and that is where it started,,,,it damaged my lungs,,,,when I was 15 working in a factory in the 60,s they sent a mobile X-ray round and we could take advantage of that,,you can imagine at 15 we went ,,,just because we could,,,and was sent a letter to tell me and visit the hospital and that was it love sue x

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15 May 2018