What Is Emphysema?
Emphysema is a disease of the lungs. It occurs most often in
smokers. It also occurs in people who regularly breathe in irritants. Emphysema
destroys the lungs’ spherical air sacs. Because of this, it also reduces the
amount of oxygen that can reach the bloodstream. Emphysema also causes the
lungs to permanently lose their elasticity.
Emphysema is one of two of the most common conditions that
fall under the umbrella term Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). The
other major COPD condition is chronic bronchitis.
Emphysema is an irreversible condition. However, treatment
may slow its progression (American Lung
What Causes Emphysema?
Smoking tobacco is the primary cause of emphysema. The more
a person smokes, the higher his or her risk.
Smoking marijuana also can lead to emphysema.
Other major causes include air pollution or long-term
exposure to environmental hazards in the workplace.
Rarely, genetics can play a factor in a form of emphysema
with early onset.
Who Is at Risk for Emphysema?
In 2008, almost 4 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed
with emphysema. Most people who develop the disease are middle aged and older.
Men and women are at equal risk (American Lung
According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services' Surgeon General's Office, smokers increase their risk of
developing emphysema by as much as 13 times (HHS,
2004). Caucasians have a higher occurrence than other races.
People who live in highly polluted areas or who work around
lung irritants also are at higher risk. Exposure to second-hand smoke also
increases the risk.
What Are the Symptoms of Emphysema?
One of the first signs of emphysema is shortness of breath,
especially during exercise. This continues to get worse until eventually
breathing is difficult at all times. Coughing occurs as well.
Exhaustion, weight loss, depression, and a fast heartbeat are
other symptoms. Affected people may develop bluish-gray lips or fingernails. If
this happens, seek medical attention immediately.
There are several ways to diagnosis emphysema. Doctors usually
ask about a patient's background and whether or not the patient is a smoker.
They will also ask about environmental factors.
Various tests can detect emphysema. These include breathing
exercises to test lung capacity, like blowing into a spirometer. X-rays and CT
scans can determine the severity of damage in the lungs. Blood tests measure
lung function by showing the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body.
How Is Emphysema Treated?
There is no cure for emphysema. But there are medications,
therapies, and surgeries that can improve the lives of sufferers.
Medication is usually recommended to help sufferers quit
Other treatments include antibiotics, which battle
infections that can make the condition worse. Bronchodilators help to open air
passages and make breathing easier. Steroids can alleviate symptoms of asthma.
They can be taken orally or inhaled. Oxygen therapy can also help make
Pulmonary therapy or even moderate exercise such as walking
can lessen symptoms. Some studies have indicated that yoga and tai chi can also
help with symptoms.
Often, people with emphysema experience anxiety and
depression. Joining a support group can be beneficial.
People with emphysema are often underweight. Foods rich with
vitamins A, C, and E like fruits and vegetables are usually recommended.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, lung reduction surgery can improve the lives of people with severe
2003). These procedures are rare.
What Is the Outlook for Emphysema?
The outlook for emphysema patients varies widely based on
the severity of the disease. As a rule, smoking cigarettes heavily leads to
shorter outcomes. People with emphysema can developing life-threatening
conditions when the lungs and heart become damaged over time.
How Can Emphysema Be Prevented?
The best way to prevent the disease is to never start
smoking, or to quit if you already have.