Emphysema is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. Emphysema, along with chronic bronchitis are referred to as Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (COPD). COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Smoking is the leading cause of emphysema.
Emphysema results when the delicate linings of the air sacs in the lungs become irreversibly damaged causing airflow limitation. As the fragile tissues between air sacs are destroyed, air pockets in the lungs develop. Air becomes trapped in these spaces of damaged lung tissue. The lungs slowly enlarge, and breathing requires more effort. The main symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath, which usually begins gradually.
What causes emphysema?
The main cause of emphysema is long-term exposure to airborne irritants such as:
- Tobacco smoke
- Marijuana smoke
- Air pollution
- Manufacturing fumes
Rarely, emphysema is caused by an inherited deficiency of a protein that protects the elastic structures in the lungs called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency emphysema.
How is emphysema diagnosed?
Lung function tests or spirometry are noninvasive tests which measure how much air the lungs can hold and how well the air flows in and out of the lungs. It can also measure how well the lungs deliver oxygen to the bloodstream. A physician may order a chest X ray and blood tests.
How is emphysema treated?
Emphysema cannot be cured, but treatments can help relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Bronchodilators and inhaled steroids are the mainstay. Antibiotics may be prescribed during acute bronchitis or pneumonia. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs can teach persons on breathing exercises and techniques to reduce breathlessness and improve exercise capacity. As lung function deteriorates a person may need home oxygen. Surgery is the last resort and includes lung volume reduction surgery or lung transplant.
What lifestyle changes are recommended?
- Quit smoking
- Avoid respiratory irritants and fumes
- Exercise regularly
- Get the recommended immunizations — influenza and pneumococcal vaccinations
What help or support is available for anyone with emphysema?
- Join a COPD support group
- The American Lung Association has Better Breathers Clubs all across the country.
- Call the Lung Helpline at 1-800-LUNGUSA