Emphysema

Emphysema, a type of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), occurs when the walls of the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs are damaged, becoming less elastic and, therefore, less able to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen.

Some alveoli may narrow and collapse, while others stretch out of shape and become abnormally large. As a result, the lungs gradually become floppy and overexpanded, making it increasingly difficult to breathe.

Emphysema is usually caused by chronic irritation of the lung tissue, most commonly by cigarette smoke but sometimes by environmental pollutants as well. It can also be caused by an illness such as asthma or tuberculosis, allergy or infection, or an inherited deficiency of a protein called alpha 1-antitrypsin (AAT).

Treatment strategies focus on helping the person to live as comfortably as possible, providing relief of symptoms, and preventing any further progression.

People with emphysema typically experience early symptoms such as troubled breathing or shortness of breath while engaging in normal activities like walking, climbing stairs, or doing household chores. If the condition advances without treatment, they may experience:

  • Anxiety
  • Sleeplessness
  • Confusion
  • Weakness
  • Appetite loss
  • Blue-toned skin
  • Unequal chest expansion

They also are more likely to develop acute bronchitis and other lung infections. While the damage to the lungs cannot be reversed, emphysema can be managed through a healthy lifestyle that incorporates physical activity and good nutrition.

Treatment strategies focus on helping the person to live as comfortably as possible, providing relief of symptoms, and preventing any further progression. They include:

  • Smoking Cessation: If the emphysema has been caused by smoking, the person must quit to prevent further damage.

  • Bronchodilator Drugs: These drugs, which are taken either orally or with an inhaler, help to relax and open air passages or reduce inflammation and swelling.

  • Other Medications: These may include corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, anticough or antimucus medicine, and antibiotics to treat infections.

  • Oxygen Therapy: Some people require extra oxygen when their body cannot absorb enough from the air.

  • Exercise/Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Breathing exercises are prescribed to strengthen the lungs, while overall physical exercise conditions the body.

  • Lung Volume Reduction Surgery: This technique removes the most severely diseased portions of the lung to allow the remaining lung and breathing muscles to work better.

  • Lung Transplantation: This complex, high-risk procedure is recommended only in a limited number of special cases.

This page was last updated: June 3, 2013

         
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