The University of Chicago Medicine Asthma and COPD Center is dedicated to providing exceptional medical care for patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD. We are also committed to conducting world-class clinical and scientific research as well as providing ground-breaking education for future health care providers and members of our community.

Our respiratory disease specialists provide a full range of services to help you understand and manage asthma and COPD. We offer the latest advancements in diagnostic testing, including spirometry, lung volumes, methacholine challenge, and other pulmonary function testing methods.

Additionally, our skilled physician-scientists conduct clinical trials and other types of studies to investigate improved therapies and procedures for the treatment of asthma and COPD. In some cases, this allows our patients access to the latest developments in respiratory care before they are available elsewhere.

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic disease that causes the airways of the lungs to swell and narrow, an inflammation known as bronchoconstriction.

Some common symptoms of asthma include wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.

There is currently no cure for asthma. But advancements in asthma research as well as asthma care and management are happening everyday. Asthma can be controlled and managed well with a combination of specialized medications and preventative measures.

Asthma is caused by triggers, which vary from person to person. It is important for someone with asthma to know what their triggers are so they can stay healthy.

Some examples of asthma triggers are ragweed, pollen, dog and cat dander, upper respiratory infections, mold and dust.

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary lung disease (COPD) is a lung disease in which your lungs are damaged, making it hard to breathe. In COPD, your airways — the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs — are partly obstructed, which makes it difficult for you to get air in and out.

Your airways branch out like an upside-down tree. At the end of each branch are many small, balloon-like air sacs called alveoli (al-VEE'-uhl-EYE'). In healthy people, each airway is clear and open. The air sacs are small and dainty, and both the airways and air sacs are elastic and springy. When you breathe in, each air sac fills up with air like a small balloon. When you breathe out, the balloon deflates and the air goes out. In COPD, the airways and air sacs lose their shape and become floppy. Less air gets in and less air goes out because:

  • Airways and air sacs lose their elasticity (like an old rubber band)
  • Cells in the airways make more mucus (sputum) than usual, which tends to clog the airways
  • Walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed
  • Walls of the airways become thick and inflamed (swollen)

COPD develops slowly, and it may be many years before you notice symptoms, such as shortness of breath. Most of the time, COPD is diagnosed in middle-aged or older people. It is a major cause of death and illness, and it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and throughout the world. There is no cure for COPD. The damage to your airways and lungs cannot be reversed, but there are things you can do to feel better and slow the damage.

Types of COPD

In the United States, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) includes:

  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Emphysema

In chronic bronchitis, the airways have become inflamed and thickened, and there is an increase in the number and size of mucus-producing cells. This results in excessive mucus production, which in turn contributes to cough and difficulty getting air in and out of the lungs.

In the emphysema type of COPD, the walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed, leading to a few large air sacs instead of many tiny ones. Consequently, the lung looks like a sponge with many large holes in it, instead of a sponge with very tiny holes. Poor exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide causes shortness of breath. 

Most people with COPD have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.