Emphysema is a long-term disease of the lungs. It is a problem with the tiny air sacs that make up the lungs. These tiny elastic sacs should stretch to fill with air and then get smaller as air moves out of the lungs. Emphysema is caused by the destruction of these air sacs. This makes it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs.
Emphysema is a
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Normal Lung vs Emphysemic Lung
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Emphysema is caused by damage to the air sacs of the lung. This damage may be caused by:
- Inhaling toxins or other irritants
- Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD)—a genetic defect which can cause emphysema at an early age
Emphysema is more common in people over 40 years old. Other factors that may increase your risk of emphysema include:
- Long-term secondhand or passive smoke exposure
- Family members with emphysema
- Exposure to pollutants at work
- History of frequent childhood lung infections
Early symptoms include:
- Increased sputum production (mucus from deep in the lungs)
- Shortness of breath with activity
As the disease progresses, you may have:
- Increased shortness of breath.
- Rapid breathing.
- Choking sensation when lying flat. You may need to prop up with pillows or sleep in a chair.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Barrel chest, which is an increase in chest size.
- Increased risk of serious lung infections.
- Heart problems.
- Coughing up thick and/or bloody mucus.
- Weight loss.
- Breathing through pursed lips.
- Desire to lean forward to improve breathing.
- More frequent flare-ups, which are periods of more severe symptoms.
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your doctor will need to test how impaired your lungs may be. This may be done with:
- Lung function tests, called spirometry—to test the force of your breath
- Arterial blood gas test—to test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood
Your doctor may also need detailed pictures of your lungs. This may be done with:
There is no cure for emphysema. Treatment is focused on managing symptoms and improving your quality of life. .
Treatment options may include one or more of the following:
smoking slows the disease. It the most important part of treatment. There are many programs to help you quit including:
- Behavior change program
- Combination of behavior program and medication
Limit the number of irritants in the air you breathe. It may help make breathing easier. Avoid smoke, dust, smog, extreme heat or cold, and high altitudes.
Medication for emphysema may help by:
- Opening the airways
- Relaxing the breathing passages
- Decreasing swelling
- Treating lung infections with antibiotics
Some medication may be taken as pills or liquids. Others are inhaled medication that is delivered directly to the lungs.
The flu and pneumonia can make your symptoms worse. Get vaccinated against
flu. The flu vaccine may also reduce flare-ups.
Oxygen therapy may be helpful if the oxygen levels in your blood are too low. It can relieve trouble breathing and improve energy. You may only need it for specific activities or it may be given throughout the day.
Special exercises can strengthen chest muscles. This can make it easier to breathe.
Regular physical activity can reduce the workload on your lungs by building you endurance. Physical activity is also associated with improved quality of life.
Follow your doctor's recommendations for activity levels and restrictions.
Special methods of breathing can help bring more air into the lungs. They can also help force trapped air out of the lungs. Effective coughing techniques can also help clear mucus from your lungs. Ask your doctor if these techniques can help you. Some examples include:
- Pursed lip breathing
- Controlled coughing technique
Eating habits to consider with emphysema:
Eat a healthy diet. It should be low in saturated fat. It should also be
fruits, vegetables, and
- Maintain a normal weight. Excess weight causes the lungs and heart to work harder.
- It may be hard to eat because you feel full. Try eating several smaller meals during the day instead of a few large meals.
- Slow down your eating pace. This will make it easier to breathe.
- If you need to gain weight, add food or drinks throughout the day. Talk to a dietitian about how many calories you need each day.
The following may help you manage emphysema symptoms:
- Pace your activities.
- Learn relaxation techniques and other methods to manage stress.
Seek emotional support from professionals, family, and friends.
can increase your breathing rate.
A small number of people may benefit from surgery. Surgery options include removing a part of the lung or a lung transplant.
To reduce your chance of getting emphysema, take these steps:
- If you smoke, quit
- Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
- Avoid exposure to air pollution or irritants
- Wear protective gear if exposed to irritants or toxins at work
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Last reviewed June 2013 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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