What is emphysema?

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Emphysema is a lung disease that affects the alveoli in the lungs. Alveoli are the tiny air sacs where the body exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide during the breathing process. This exchange allows an individual to get enough oxygen into their body. The alveoli are normally stretchy, which allows them to fill up like a balloon with air. Emphysema damages and destroys alveoli, which reduces the amount of oxygen that can reach the bloodstream. This causes chronic difficulty breathing.

Emphysema is a type of COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is a group of lung diseases that both impair breathing and worsen over time. All COPD conditions, including emphysema, are irreversible. If you suspect you have this condition, seek medical help as soon as possible. Treatment typically aims to slow the disease’s progression and minimize symptoms. For many, this translates to a healthier and more enjoyable life.

What causes emphysema?

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Any long-term exposure to irritants, including cigarette ingredients, chemical fumes, pollution, and airborne debris, is known to cause emphysema. However, in the United States, smoking is the primary cause of emphysema. More than 80 percent of smoking-related deaths are caused by COPD, including emphysema. Because of its strong link to smoking, emphysema is among the most preventable respiratory illnesses.

In some very rare cases, a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can increase the risk of a person developing some liver and lung diseases, including emphysema.

What are common emphysema symptoms?

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Symptoms of emphysema can take years to develop. Many people have emphysema for several years before signs of the disease manifest. That said, once they start, they typically persist. The first emphysema symptoms typically include shortness of breath while exercising. From there, symptoms may progress to include any of the following:

  • Exhaustion
  • Cough
  • Rapid breathing
  • Weight loss
  • Sputum production
  • Wheezing
  • Fast heartbeat, even at rest
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia

However, it is important to remember that many emphysema symptoms can look like other lung conditions. If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms make an appointment with your doctor or pulmonologist. They can help provide a diagnosis and access to treatment that will slow emphysema symptoms.

Who is at risk for developing emphysema?

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There are several risk factors that contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing emphysema. More than 4.5 million people in the United States have the condition, according to the American Lung Association. Most of these individuals are seniors, or over 65 years old, and men and women appear to be at equal risk for getting emphysema.

Remember that smoking tobacco is the primary cause of emphysema for most people in the United States. As a result, those who are or were long-term cigarette smokers are at a higher risk for developing the condition. Secondhand smoke can also increase a person’s risk of getting emphysema, as can smoking marijuana. In very rare cases, genetics can play a role in emphysema’s early onset.

Similarly, other irritants have been shown to cause emphysema. Those who live or work in areas with high pollution, like lung irritants and chemical fumes, are at a higher risk for developing the condition.

How do I get an emphysema diagnosis?

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Doctors can perform a variety of tests to determine an emphysema diagnosis. To begin the appointment, your doctor or pulmonologist will get a detailed medical history and background. They will ask specifically if you are a smoker, if you were a smoker, and whether you are around pollutants or hazardous fumes at home or at work.

If you meet any of the above criteria, the doctor will choose from a range of tests to provide a diagnosis. Here is a sampling of the tests you may receive during a pulmonology appointment:

  • Blood tests, which can help determine how well the lungs are transferring oxygen to the blood
  • Lung functioning tests, which measure how much air a person can breathe in
  • Imaging tests, like CT scans and X-rays, which can provide detailed pictures of the lungs
  • Pulse oximetry tests, which measure how much oxygen is in the blood
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) tests, which will check the heart’s function to rule out any other diseases
  • Arterial blood gas tests, which measure how much oxygen and carbon dioxide is in the blood

If the doctor determines that you do not have enough oxygen in your blood, have impaired lung function, and that other conditions can be ruled out, they will provide an emphysema diagnosis. Remember that this condition can only be diagnosed with the help of a professional and a variety of physical tests. If you think you may have emphysema or any other pulmonary disease, make an appointment with your pulmonologist today.

Is there a treatment for emphysema?

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Emphysema is irreversible, which means there is no known cure. As a result, emphysema treatments aim to reduce symptom severity while slowing the disease’s progression. Your doctor may recommend a combination of therapies, surgeries, and medications. In all cases, however, the first step in treating emphysema is to stop smoking. If you cannot quit on your own, ask your doctor for help. They can direct you toward medications and therapies.

Once you have quit smoking, your doctor may suggest any of the following emphysema treatments. These medicines and therapies vary in invasiveness and will be prescribed depending on the severity of your symptoms.

  • Steroids, which can alleviate shortness of breath
  • Antibiotics, which can fight infections that may make emphysema worse
  • Bronchodilators, which are medications that help open air passages
  • Oxygen therapy, which can ease breathing
  • Deep breathing exercises, which can help relieve shortness of breath
  • Pulmonary therapy, which can strengthen breathing muscles
  • Moderate exercise, which can strengthen breathing muscles
  • Lung volume reduction surgery, which involves removing diseased lung tissue and can improve lung elasticity. Please note that not all emphysema patients are good candidates for this treatment.
  • Lung transplant surgery, which will remove and replace diseased lungs

Additionally, many individuals with emphysema are underweight. If this describes your experience, your doctor may recommend eating foods high in vitamins A, C, and E content, which can improve overall health. Additionally, it is important to get vaccinated against certain infections that may complicate emphysema, like pneumonia.

What is the outlook for people with emphysema?

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The outlook for emphysema patients depends heavily on the disease’s severity. Emphysema is a degenerative disease, which means it slowly impairs lung function over time. If the condition is caught early, folks can expect to live long, relatively normal lives with emphysema treatment and regular visits to the pulmonologist. However, if symptoms are allowed to progress, the condition can become life-threatening.

We would like to note that some people with emphysema may develop serious complications. This can include collapsed lung(s), heart problems, and the development of large holes in the lungs, known as bullae. Rigorous symptom and disease management may be necessary to prevent these life-threatening conditions. Talk to your doctor about your risk for developing complications from emphysema.

If you do not have emphysema but are at risk for developing the disease, there are several things you can to do prevent it from occurring. Remember that emphysema is one of the most preventable pulmonary diseases. Quitting smoking is the best way to avoid an emphysema diagnosis. If you can, stay away from potentially harmful fumes and chemicals, as well as heavy pollution. And, as always, try to lead a healthy life with moderate exercise and a varied diet.