Lung Transplant

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023

A lung transplant is a type of surgery that may be an option for certain people with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A lung transplant is a surgery to replace 1 or both of your lungs with healthy lungs from a donor. The donor is usually someone who has passed away but wished to donate their organs. In about 70 percent of lung transplants for people with COPD, both lungs are transplanted. For the remaining, only 1 lung is transplanted.1,2

How does a lung transplant help treat COPD?

People with severe COPD have lots of damage to their lungs that cannot be reversed. This damage causes difficulty breathing and can ultimately lead to death. A lung transplant replaces the damaged lungs with new lungs that will function better.2

A lung transplant can provide positive results for certain people with severe COPD. The benefits include:1

  • Improved lung function
  • Increased ability to exercise
  • Better quality of life

People are often asked to complete a special pulmonary rehabilitation program before transplant surgery to help prepare them for the transplant. They also need to have a strong support network to help them cope with the stresses of waiting for the transplant, undergoing surgery, and recovery after the surgery.1

Who is a good candidate for a lung transplant?

There is also a shortage of donor lungs available for anyone waiting for a transplant. Transplant centers will want to ensure you are a good candidate emotionally and physically. Research shows people who benefit the most from a lung transplant are strongly motivated to receive the transplant and improve their health. They must be willing to make lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking.1,3

Factors that impact lung transplant eligibility include:1-3

  • Must have severe COPD
  • Must have very low functioning lungs
  • Must have stopped responding to other treatments
  • Must be younger than a certain age, for some transplant centers
  • Not be a candidate for other COPD surgeries like lung volume reduction

To undergo lung transplant surgery, you must also be healthy enough to go through such a major surgery. For this reason, you cannot have a recent history of cancer or have other diseases that impact organs besides the lungs. You and your doctors will carefully consider whether a lung transplant is the best choice.1,3

What are the possible complications?

Because it is such an invasive procedure, there are many risks associated with getting a lung transplant. As with any surgery, there is the risk of infection or other complications during recovery. There are also specific complications that arise because of having a new organ in your body.1

With any transplant, there is a risk that your body will reject the new organ. People who receive transplants must take immune system suppression drugs, or immunosuppressant drugs, for the rest of their lives. Like any medicine, these drugs come with their own side effects, like weight gain and increasing your risk for other health complications. Taking immunosuppressant drugs also makes you more susceptible to infections.1

These are not all the possible risks of a lung transplant. Talk to your doctor about what to expect or if you experience any changes that concern you during the process of getting a lung transplant.

What to expect from a lung transplant

If you are interested in a transplant, you will be evaluated by a transplant team to determine if you are a good candidate. If you are approved as a transplant candidate, you will be placed on a waiting list.1,3

This waiting list keeps you in line for lungs that may be a good match based on your characteristics. The waiting process can take weeks to years. Unfortunately, for some people a lung never becomes available.1,3

The call with news of an available lung can come at any time, so it is recommended that candidates stay close to the transplant center. If a lung is available, the candidate will be asked to come in and the transplant team will perform tests to make sure the lung is a match and that the candidate is ready for surgery.1,3

If the surgery proceeds, you will be put under general anesthesia, meaning you will be fully asleep with assisted breathing. The surgery can last from 6 to 12 hours. After the transplant, you will recover in the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). During recovery, you will have many follow-up appointments to make sure you are remaining healthy. But with time, you can start to resume your normal life with healthy lungs.1,3

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