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The 5 ‘Whats’ Surrounding Emphysema

By DuPage Medical Group Pulmonary Medicine

Emphysema is a lung disease that slowly and steadily reduces your lung function, often causing individuals to become short of breath. It is one of several diseases collectively known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a lung disease that damages the air sacs (alveoli) and small bronchial tubes in your lungs. This causes you to become short of breath, sometimes even at rest. Emphysema gradually causes the inner walls of the air sacs to weaken, which creates a larger air space instead of many small spaces. Because there is reduced surface area in your lungs, the amount of oxygen that reaches your bloodstream is also reduced. Then, when you exhale, the air sacs don’t work properly and trap old air. This may lead to over inflation of your lungs and will require more effort to take normal breaths.

What are the symptoms?

Emphysema can be present for many years without you noticing any signs or symptoms. The main sign of emphysema is shortness of breath. These symptoms may not be present until emphysema is in an advanced stage.

What causes Emphysema?

Emphysema is primarily caused by long-term exposure to airborne irritants such as tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke, air pollution, and manufacturing fumes. In rare cases, emphysema is caused by a genetic problem with a deficiency of a protein that protects the elastic structures in the lungs.

What are the treatment options?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for emphysema but there are treatment options that can help you breathe easier. Medications such as bronchodilators and inhaled steroids can help open your lungs and relieve shortness of breath. If you develop a bacterial infection, such as acute bronchitis or pneumonia, antibiotics can be used to help treat these conditions.

In addition to medicine, certain therapies can help with your lung function. During pulmonary rehabilitation, a therapist can teach you breathing exercises and techniques that can help reduce breathlessness while improving your ability to exercise. You will also receive advice about the proper nutrition for your condition; in the early stages of emphysema, many people need to lose weight while people in late-stage emphysema usually need to gain weight. Finally, if you have severe emphysema and have low blood oxygen levels, supplemental oxygen may be recommended.

Finally, your doctor may suggest surgery if your emphysema is quite severe. Two surgery options exist. In lung volume reduction surgery, a surgeon removes small pieces of the damaged lung tissue. This allows the remaining lung tissue to expand, work more efficiently, and improve breathing capabilities. In rare circumstances this can be done through bronchoscopy instead of surgery. A lung transplant is an option if you have severe emphysema and no other treatment option has worked.

What can be done to prevent Emphysema?

You can prevent emphysema by not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke. If you work with chemical fumes or dust, wear a mask that can protect your lungs.

If you are having difficulty breathing, whether during exercise or at rest, schedule an appointment with your doctor right away.

Topics and Subtopics: Respiratory Problems

Learn more about:
Pulmonary Medicine
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