Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung condition that makes it hard to breathe. COPD can be caused by chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or both.
Without treatment, COPD gets progressively worse. But with treatment from our pulmonology specialists, you can slow the progression, manage your symptoms, and stay active.
In addition to offering the latest therapies, UI Health Care researchers are studying new treatments for COPD. You may be able to take part in a clinical trial of new drugs that aren’t yet available anywhere else.
COPD risk factors, symptoms, and diagnosis
Many people think that COPD symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath are just a normal part of aging. That’s not the case. If you have these symptoms or others listed below, talk to your primary care provider.
COPD risk factors
COPD is usually caused by inhaling lung irritants over a long period. The most common irritants are:
- Cigarette smoke—by far the most common cause of COPD
- Chemical fumes or dust encountered at work
- Air pollution
- Smoke from coal or wood stoves
Other risk factors include:
- Having asthma
- Being born with underdeveloped lungs
In rare cases, COPD can be caused by a genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AATD) deficiency. This disorder affects the body’s ability to produce an enzyme that protects the lungs.
COPD can be caused by chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or a combination of both conditions.
- Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the breathing tubes that results in swollen, narrowed airways.
- Emphysema results from damage to the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. The damage restricts the amount of oxygen carried to your bloodstream when you inhale. And when you exhale, stale air is trapped in your lungs and prevents fresh air from entering.
Both conditions can cause one or more of the following symptoms:
- A cough that doesn’t go away
- Coughing up mucus (sputum)
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
- Chest tightness
How UI Health Care experts diagnose COPD
Your pulmonology specialist might order one or more of the following pulmonary function tests to determine whether you have COPD.
Even if you’ve already been diagnosed, we’ll confirm that your symptoms aren’t being caused by another condition like asthma.
- Spirometry: Measures how much air you breathe out and how forcefully you exhale
- Oximetry: Measures the level of oxygen in your blood
- Exhaled nitric oxide test: Measures the level of nitric oxide you exhale; a high level can indicate swollen airways
- Cardiopulmonary exercise test: Measures the performance of your heart and lungs while you walk or ride a stationary bike
- Chest X-ray: Can show changes in the lungs caused by COPD
- CT scan: Imaging that can show whether your COPD is caused by chronic bronchitis or emphysema
- Blood test: Checks for AATD deficiency
- Blood gases test: Measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood and assesses your lung function
- Lung volume testing: Measures the amount of air you can hold in your lungs and the amount that remains after you exhale
- Walk tests: Monitors how your lungs work during exercise and how your lungs are responding to treatment
- Sleep studies: Records your oxygen levels, heart rate, and breathing while you sleep
COPD treatment from UI Health Care
It’s true that COPD isn’t curable, and the lung damage it causes isn’t reversible. But there is good news: We offer the latest treatments to make breathing easier and improve your quality of life.
And if you’re eligible, our team will connect you with clinical trials for the next generation of effective COPD therapies.
Education and lifestyle changes
Your care team will give you the tools you need to feel better, reduce flare-ups, and breathe more easily.
- Quitting smoking is essential if you have COPD. Smokers with COPD who quit can slow down the progression of the disease. UI Health Care’s smoking cessation experts can help you manage cravings, avoid triggers, and choose medications that can help.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation combines education and exercise in a program that’s customized to your abilities and goals. Rehab can make a big difference in your quality of life.
- An action plan gives you clear instructions on what to do if your symptoms flare up. Periods of worse COPD symptoms, called exacerbations, can be managed if you get help early.
Medications and home treatments
The treatments your pulmonology specialist recommends depend on what’s causing your COPD and how severe it is.
- Bronchodilator medications open the airway by relaxing the irritated small muscles around it. These can be short-acting or long-acting.
- Inhaled or oral corticosteroids reduce lung inflammation, often in combination with other medications.
- Biologic therapy targets inflammation to improve lung function. Researchers at UI Health Care helped develop these groundbreaking drugs and have years of expertise in using them.
- Supplemental oxygen to get more oxygen into the bloodstream is often recommended for emphysema.
- Home noninvasive ventilation (H-NIV) delivers oxygen via a face mask that resembles a CPAP or BiPAP machine.
- Antibiotics treat flare-ups caused by a bacterial or viral infection.
- Clinical trials of new therapies can give you access to new treatments that aren’t yet widely available.
If your heart is strong and you have some healthy lung tissue, you might be a candidate for certain procedures. Your provider will discuss if a lung procedure is right for you.
Some procedures we offer include:
- Bronchoscopic lung volume reduction, or the Zephyr valve procedure, requires no incisions. A UI Health Care pulmonologist helped develop this groundbreaking procedure and is the only provider in Iowa who performs it.
- Lung transplant is a major procedure, but it can be an option if you meet specific criteria. UI Health Care is the only health system in Iowa to offer lung transplants.
A team approach
You’ll have a team of UI Health Care COPD experts making your customized care plan. Our providers meet weekly to discuss each patient’s diagnosis, progress, and plan of action.
In addition to your primary care provider, your COPD care team may include: