Emphysema: How You Get It and How to Fight ItEn Español (Spanish Version)
is a chronic respiratory condition most often caused by the destruction of lung tissue by toxins contained in
. This, in turn, leads to chronic overinflation of the lungs, greatly decreasing their ability to function.
, emphysema is a
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
that evolves over a period of time. Emphysema results in destruction of the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs. Oxygen is delivered to the lungs and carbon dioxide is carried from the lungs across the walls of the alveoli. As more and more alveoli are damaged, it becomes harder and harder for the lungs to function, which can cause these symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Increasing difficulty exercising
- Great difficulty exhaling
- Chronic coughing
- Cough with mucus production
As the disease progresses, breathing becomes increasingly difficult. In its most severe stage, virtually any physical activity becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Emphysema is usually the result of long term exposure to harmful particles or gases, such as:
- Tobacco smoke
- Occupational dusts and chemicals
- Indoor air pollutants, such as fuel burned in confined spaces
- Outdoor air pollutants
When a person complains of the chronic presence of the symptoms of emphysema, a physical exam and various
lung function tests
(spirometry) are done to confirm the diagnosis.
may also be done.
Since, at present, emphysema cannot be cured, the goals of treatment are to:
- Relieve the symptoms of the disease
- Prevent further loss of lung function
To relieve symptoms, one or more of the following treatments may be used:
- Bronchodilators—to help relax the lung's airways
- Anticholinergics—to help open the airway passages.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation—to help improve lung capacity and general overall physical condition
- Anti-inflammatory medications—to decrease inflammation and swelling in the breathing passages
- Oxygen therapy—may be used for those with severely impaired lung function
Emphysema may also be treated with surgery, such as:
- Bullectomy—removal of an area on the lungs that has formed a large cavity (bullous)
- Lung volume reduction surgery—removal of seriously damaged part of the lung
- Lung transplant
To slow emphysema's progression, the agent causing it must be removed. Since long-term smoking causes an overwhelming number of cases of emphysema, the only effective way to slow the progression of emphysema is to
There are many smoking cessation therapies available. Your doctor may also be able to prescribe a medication that may help you stop smoking.
To prevent the onset of emphysema, take the following steps:
- If you smoke, quit. Talk to your doctor about strategies to quit.
- Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
- Avoid workplace and environmental pollutants.
Emphysema does not suddenly occur. It develops over a long period of time. At the first sign of any of the symptoms, talk to your doctor. The sooner emphysema is treated, the better the outcomes.
American Lung Association
Smoke Free - National Cancer Institute
Canadian Lung Association
COPD. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated July 15, 2014. Accessed July 24, 2014.
Explore COPD. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd. Updated July 31, 2013. Accessed July 24, 2014.
Tutic M, Lardinois D, Imfeld S, Korom S, Boehler A, Speich R, et al. Lung-volume reduction surgery as an alternative or bridging procedure to lung transplantation.
Ann Thorac Surg. 2006 Jul;82(1):208-13.
Last Reviewed August 2014