Purpose of review: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a major cause of morbidity and mortality throughout the world. This major public health threat is ranked twelfth as a worldwide burden of disease and is projected to rank fifth by the year 2020 as a cause of lost quantity and quality of life. The impact of this disease in women is significantly understudied but the evidence that does exist reveals potentially substantial gender differences in the susceptibility to, severity of, and response to management of COPD.
Recent findings: The best known risk factor for the development of COPD is tobacco smoking. While smoking rates in women have largely stabilized in developed countries, the rates are continuing to climb in developing countries. While it is not clear whether women are more susceptible to the toxic effects of cigarette smoke than men, it is known that the incidence and prevalence of COPD will continue to climb as more women smoke. Other known risk factors for the development of COPD include air pollution, infections, occupational exposures, and genetic factors. Air pollution, particularly fine particulate indoor air pollution from biomass fuels disproportionately affects women. Infections such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and tuberculosis (TB) disproportionately affect vulnerable populations such as poor women and occupational exposures to various dusts and toxins are often gender specific. Genetic factors are still being explored but there seems a preponderance of women who are affected by early-onset and non-smoking related COPD. Women with COPD also seem to be underdiagnosed by physicians and may have different responses to medical treatment, smoking cessation interventions, and pulmonary rehabilitation programs.
Summary: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in women is an understudied subject but is gaining attention as a significant public health threat. In developed countries, efforts at preventing the initiation of tobacco smoking and targeting smoking cessation programs in women are needed. In developing countries, efforts to promote cleaner fuels, improved stoves, better home ventilation, reduce toxic dust and fume exposures, combat infectious diseases such as TB and HIV, and improve nutrition are all ways in which the lung health of women can be improved.