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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD)

Managing COPD With High-Quality Care & Innovative Lung Treatments

COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. It is a chronic health condition that can worsen over time. However, with early

diagnosis and treatment, many people are able to manage COPD to maintain their quality of life. Treatment can also reduce the risks of developing other chronic health conditions that are associated with COPD, such as heart disease.

At University of Utah Health, our pulmonary specialists provide leading-edge patient care with the latest innovations in lung disease treatmentlung transplant, and pulmonary cardiac care for patients with COPD.

What Is COPD?

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a degenerative disease (a disease that gets worse over time) of the lungs that causes obstruction in your airflow and can make it difficult to breathe. Most people experience COPD after long-term exposure to harmful irritants or particulate matter. The most common is cigarette smoke, but it can also be caused by air pollution and workplace exposures.

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COPD Symptoms

It’s important to recognize the early signs of COPD. While there is no cure for COPD, early diagnosis and treatment can help you manage the condition and maintain a better quality of life, and a longer life.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • frequent coughing;
  • wheezing;
  • excess production of mucus, phlegm, or sputum;
  • shortness of breath; and
  • trouble taking deep breaths. 

Anyone can get COPD, but it is more common in:

  • current or former smokers, or
  • people with asthma, especially those with long-standing asthma.

What Causes COPD?

While tobacco smoke is the primary cause of COPD, people who have never smoked can still develop COPD if they have a genetic susceptibility to lung damage. An estimated one in four people worldwide who develop COPD have never smoked, according to research.

In addition to smoking, the following things can put you at higher risk of developing the disease:

  • Emphysema — A condition that is part of the complex that is COPD. The small air passages in the lungs (bronchioles) are destroyed from long-term exposure to cigarette smoke or small, harmful particles in the air.
  • Chronic bronchitis — This condition is caused by inflammation in the bronchial tube lining that carries air to and from tiny air sacs called alveoli in the lungs. Like emphysema, chronic bronchitis is part of the complex that makes up COPD.
  • Asthma This chronic inflammatory disease in the airways can put smokers or former smokers at higher risk of developing COPD.
  • Occupational exposure — Chemical fumes, vapors, dust, and other irritants where you work can put you at risk, especially if the exposure occurs over several years.
  • Air pollution — People who live in areas with high levels of air pollution are at higher risk of developing COPD.
  • Genetic disorder — Low levels of alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) protein can leave you more susceptible to COPD and lung damage. An estimated one percent of people have this deficiency.

COPD Life Expectancy

Life expectancy after a COPD diagnosis varies depending on several factors, including:

  • age,
  • severity of lung deterioration,
  • lifestyle habits, and
  • available treatment options.

Can COPD Be Cured?

COPD is a disease that can be treated but cannot be cured. The things that cause COPD can also put you at risk for developing other serious medical conditions, such as heart disease and cancer. Patients with COPD are at risk for severe colds, flu, and pneumonia. It’s important to get a correct diagnosis for COPD as early as possible to prevent severe complications and lower your risk of developing these other conditions.

Our pulmonology specialists at U of U Health help many COPD patients manage their symptoms. If your COPD is diagnosed early enough, available treatments and therapies can help you live longer with a higher quality of life.

Steps to Improve Your Lung Function

Lung function naturally declines with age, even for healthy people who do not have COPD, so it’s important to take steps to minimize your risk of lung decline.

  • Quit smoking if you currently smoke.
  • Reduce your exposure to irritants like air pollution as much as possible.
  • Reduce or eliminate your exposure to chemicals or vapors in your workplace.
  • Use proper ventilation anytime you burn fuels indoors.
  • If you have asthma or allergies, see your doctor regularly to manage your symptoms.

COPD Treatment

The specific treatment your doctor recommends for COPD will depend on the severity of your disease. Your doctor will discuss your options, which may include one or more of the following.


Several medications are available to treat COPD.

  • Bronchodilators — Inhalers that relax the muscles around your airways to relieve coughing or shortness of breath and make it easier to breathe. These are available in short-acting or long-acting options.
  • Inhaled corticosteroids — These reduce inflammation in the airways and prevent exacerbations. These medications do come with some side effects, including bruising, hoarseness, and oral infections.
  • Combination inhalers — Inhalers that have both a bronchodilator and corticosteroids, or a combination of two different types of bronchodilators.
  • Oral steroids — These can help with severe COPD symptoms. Most oral steroids are only used for a short time (approximately five days) because of the potential for side effects when taken for longer.
  • Antibiotics — These medications do not prevent or treat COPD, but may be prescribed for COPD exacerbations (flare-ups)caused by respiratory infections.

Lung Therapies

For moderate to severe COPD, our doctors will often prescribe the following lung therapies.

  • Oxygen therapy — A lightweight, portable unit you can use at home and when you go out that delivers supplemental oxygen to your lungs. Some people only need oxygen therapy at night, while others may require it at all times.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation — These programs will help you learn how to reduce your risks and improve your respiratory symptoms through exercise training, nutrition advice, and COPD education.

Surgery or Lung Transplant

Your doctor may recommend surgery if your COPD is more advanced and you don’t respond to medications and other therapies.

  • Lung volume reduction surgery — A surgeon will remove damaged tissue from your upper lungs to make space in your chest cavity for your lungs to work more efficiently.
  • Endoscopic lung volume reduction — A minimally invasive lung reduction therapy that shrinks damaged lobes in your lungs to make space for healthier parts of your lungs to expand.
  • Lung transplant — This transplantation surgery will remove and replace one or both of your damaged lung(s) with a donor lung(s). This is a major operation that comes with significant risks and is not recommended for most COPD patients. Your pulmonologist will discuss this with you if it is an option for your treatment.

Make an Appointment with Our Pulmonary Specialists

Call U of U Health Pulmonology at 801-581-5943 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced pulmonologists.

You do not need a referral from your primary care provider to schedule an appointment with us. However, some insurance providers require that you get a referral before you see a specialist. Contact your insurance carrier with any questions you may have about your plan requirements.

Meet Our Pulmonary Patients

Double Lung Transplant Saves Utah Veteran's Life

For Joe Rands, breathing hasn’t always been easy. After living with pulmonary fibrosis for more than 15 years, breathing became more and more difficult in the early months of 2020. Unfortunately for Rands, a 59-year-old veteran and Utah native, the decline came hard and fast.

“I thought I was out of shape, and everyone else just thought I was lazy,” said Rands. “That is, until I started getting extreme headaches, feeling lightheaded, and sluggish.”

Read Joe's Story

Respiratory Issues From Unknown Cause Leads to Lung Transplant

In her big, blended family of nine, Maylee Lemon is an optimist who loves to keep everyone laughing. It was during her pregnancy with her youngest daughter in 2005 that she first noticed some respiratory issues, but at the time she thought it was pregnancy-related. 

Later after her pregnancy, Maylee went to see a pulmonologist who started monitoring her condition. Eventually she was referred to the Lung Transplant Team at University of Utah Health.

Read Maylee's Story

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