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When you breathe, air travels to your lungs through airways called bronchi. The bronchi divide into smaller airways, called bronchioles, which end in clusters of tiny air sacs, called alveoli. Emphysema, the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, affects the walls of the millions of tiny air sacs in the lungs, which become inflamed and lose elasticity, causing the bronchioles to collapse. As a result, air becomes trapped in the air sacks, which become overstretched and may rupture, greatly affecting a person's ability to breathe normally.

The leading cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking. Other risks factors include air pollution, occupational exposure to dust and chemicals, frequent lower respiratory infections and second hand smoke. In rare cases, the genetic disorder alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency causes emphysema.

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung conditions that cause permanent blockage of airflow in the lungs.

Our Approach to Emphysema

UCSF offers comprehensive evaluations and care for all types of COPD. When treating emphysema, we aim to ease symptoms, slow progression of the disease and prevent complications.

Treatment options include medications, supplemental oxygen and, for patients with AAT deficiency, AAT infusions. We also offer pulmonary rehabilitation, a multifaceted program that provides nutrition and exercise counseling, help in quitting smoking and education on how to stay as healthy as possible. Some patients may benefit from surgery to remove small portions of damaged lung or from lung transplantation. UCSF is currently the top lung transplant program in the U.S. for higher-than-expected patient survival rates and graft survival rates (ongoing function of the transplanted lungs).

In addition to caring for patients, we lead research to improve the understanding and treatment of COPD. Interested patients may have the option to try experimental treatments by participating in a clinical trial.

Awards & recognition

  • usnews-neurology

    Among the top hospitals in the nation

  • usnews-pulmonology

    Best in Northern California for pulmonology & lung surgery

  • Rated high-performing hospital for COPD

UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.