Health

What is emphysema? Symptoms & Treatment


When you’re healthy, you don’t really think about breathing, let alone breathing first. Sure, it’s one of the essential functions of life, but inhalation and exhalation are so automatic (and fed into our brains) that it doesn’t really give you a reason to think about it. it. That is, until something goes wrong and it becomes harder to get air in and out.

One condition that can make breathing difficult is emphysema, where damage to the lungs makes it harder to get oxygen into the body. It is a serious disease that affects more than 3 million people in the United States – it is also one of the most preventable.

We will look at what emphysema is and how it is related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). We’ll also tell you about the main causes, symptoms, and stages of emphysema, and give you a summary of available treatments.

What is emphysema?

Pulmonary emphysema is a long-term disease lung health status make breathing difficult. Over time, the air sacs in the lungs, also called alveoli, become damaged. The inner walls of these air sacs weaken and rupture, creating larger air spaces in the lungs. When this happens, the surface area of ​​the lungs is reduced and the amount of oxygen reaching the blood is also reduced.

Emphysema is a chronic disease and it can develop slowly over time. There is no way to repair or restore damaged lung tissue, but there are treatments to live more comfortably with the disease. These treatments can also help control symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

Types of emphysema

There are several different types of emphysema that can affect different areas of the lungs, as well as the body:

  • Central emphysema (CLE) CLE is the most common type of emphysema, and it occurs in the upper part or lobes of the lungs.
  • Generalized emphysema (PLE) PLE affects the lungs in general but can affect the lower part of the lungs more severely.
  • Posterior emphysema (PSE) PSE damages the air sacs in the outermost part of the lungs, but with more severe forms of PSE, damage can also occur in other parts of the lung.
  • Emphysema This form of emphysema occurs when giant bubble-like cavities filled with fluid or air develop in the lungs.
  • Subcutaneous emphysema This is a rarer form of emphysema, when air or gas gets under the skin tissue. It usually appears on the chest, neck, or face, but it can also develop in other areas of the body. This form of emphysema is usually not caused by smoking or other lung irritants but by some medical procedure or trauma to the body.

What is the difference between emphysema and COPD?

First, what exactly is COPD? Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, is a group of lung diseases that make breathing difficult and worsen over time. COPD usually occurs in people with a history of smoking, but it can also occur with long-term exposure to lung irritants such as secondhand smoke or air pollution.

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis, where the lining of the airways is constantly irritated and inflamed, are the two most common conditions that cause COPD. Both of these conditions make breathing more difficult, leading to shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing. People diagnosed with COPD are often diagnosed with both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but they can occur separately.

What causes emphysema?

Emphysema can have a number of causes, but the four most common are:

Smoke

It is the number one cause of emphysema. Smoking destroys lung tissue and irritates the airways, causing inflammation and damage that leads to airway swelling, difficulty clearing airways, and increased mucus production.

Long-term exposure to lung irritants

Some examples of lung irritants include air pollution, secondhand smoke, and occupational lung irritants, such as coal or exhaust fumes.

Age

Emphysema is most commonly seen in people age 40 and older, particularly in early smokers, still smoking, or long-term exposure to lung irritants. Emphysema can occur in young people, but because emphysema usually develops slowly, older people are more at risk.

Genetics

Rare, but an inherited condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency weakens the lungs, which can cause emphysema. In addition, people with a history of smoking are more likely to develop emphysema if they have a family history of COPD.

Symptoms of emphysema

Because emphysema often progresses slowly, symptoms can take a while to appear – a person can actually have emphysema for years without even knowing it. Symptoms are usually mild at first and become more severe as the disease progresses. Symptoms or signs of emphysema may include:

  • Frequent and persistent cough
  • Coughing up a lot of mucus
  • Frequent respiratory infections, like colds or flu
  • Shortness of breath during daily activities and physical activity
  • Wheeze
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep problems
  • Depression
  • Weight loss

What does emphysema feel like?

Some of the first symptoms that may appear are shortness of breath and constant fatigue. These symptoms alone can be considered mild or related to other illnesses, so when should you see a doctor? If breathing becomes more difficult even without physical activity or lung sounds change – from typical breathing rhythms to wheezing, clicking or crackling – it may be time to see a doctor. .

A woman at home breathes deeply from an oxygen mask she keeps on her face.

Diagnosing emphysema

Visiting your doctor will help diagnose emphysema in a few steps. Your doctor may recommend a chest X-ray, but an X-ray does not always confirm the diagnosis. However, it can rule out other causes of shortness of breath, such as pneumonia or asthma, and helps diagnose advanced stages of emphysema.

Because X-rays do not always confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may also recommend a computed tomography (CT) scan. CT scans take X-ray images from many directions to create different views of internal organs, helping to detect and diagnose emphysema.

Another step your doctor may take is to order a blood test in a laboratory, where blood tests are done to determine how well your lungs are transferring oxygen into your blood and how well they are removing carbon dioxide.

Finally, your doctor may order lung function tests, called pulmonary function tests (PFTs). PFTs, such as spirometry, nitric oxide test, and arterial blood gas test, are noninvasive tests that measure lung capacity, how much air is circulating in and out of the lungs, and how well the lungs can supply them. oxygen supply to the blood.

Why is early detection of emphysema important?

Because emphysema is not reversible like other lung conditions, early detection is important. Emphysema symptoms worsen over time, and early detection can slow the progression of symptoms and disease, helping to improve quality of life. It can also help identify the causes of illness so you can limit your exposure to them.

Four stages of emphysema

Emphysema is classified into four stages: early, moderate, severe, and very severe. Doctors use these stages to describe the progression of the disease and prescribe the appropriate treatment for each stage.

Early emphysema

If someone is at risk for emphysema, like those with a history of smoking, it’s important to watch out for symptoms such as a persistent cough or shortness of breath, even if it’s mild. Although it is very easy to dismiss the early warning signs. But having emphysema during this stage can help slow its progression, allowing you to maintain your health for longer.

Moderate emphysema

This stage occurs when symptoms such as frequent coughing, feeling tired, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping, and wheezing interfere with daily activities. There may be flares of symptoms, which then increase over several days.

Severe emphysema

During this stage, symptoms become more severe: severe shortness of breath, fatigue and cough, and more frequent flare-ups. In addition, there may be new signs of the progression of emphysema, such as more frequent respiratory infections, such as colds or flu, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and others.

Very severe emphysema

Emphysema will likely affect all activities of daily living and it may be difficult to breathe even without physical activity. Chronic respiratory failure can occur – meaning not enough oxygen moves from the lungs to the blood and when the lungs don’t take enough carbon dioxide out of the blood.

Methods of treating emphysema

While there is no cure for emphysema, there are treatments that can help slow the progression of the disease and help sufferers live more comfortably.

Pulmonary rehabilitation

The goal of pulmonary rehabilitation is to promote healthy lifestyle changes – using exercise, lifestyle education, and diet to help improve quality of life and exercise capacity.

Oxygen therapy

If emphysema is causing low blood oxygen levels, oxygen therapy may be helpful. With oxygen therapy, supplemental oxygen can help deliver more oxygen to the lungs and blood.

Medicines to treat emphysema

These may include bronchodilators to relax the airways and help with breathing problems, inhaled steroids, aerosol sprays to help reduce inflammation and ease breathing problems, and antibiotics to treat infections caused by bacteria.

Surgery

If the disease has progressed to a later stage, doctors may recommend lung volume reduction surgery, where damaged lung tissue is removed. If the damage is severe and other treatments don’t work, a lung transplant may be an option.

Lifestyle change

Making lifestyle changes is easier said than done, but it’s the most important way to control emphysema and move on with your life. Don’t be afraid to seek help – it’s a sign of strength, not weakness.

The right way to stop smoking is for you

The number one priority is figuring out the best way to stop. Talk to your doctor about smoking cessation strategy – they may prescribe gum, inhaler, patch, or prescription medication to help.

Avoid inhaling irritants

Avoiding air pollution, smoke from wood-burning fireplaces, and dust can help you breathe a little easier.

Protection against infection

Frequent hand washing when in public, using hand sanitizer, avoiding people with respiratory illnesses, such as colds or flu, and getting an annual flu shot can help.

Stay active

Talk to your doctor, if needed, to find an exercise regimen that’s right for you. Regular exercise can help reduce symptoms of emphysema, improve circulation and help your body use oxygen better, strengthen your heart, improve mental health, and much more.

Eat well

This is an easy way to keep your immune system strong. Cutting down on red meat, processed foods, and sugar, and eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and olive oil can help reduce inflammation. Nutritional supplements can also help – talk to your doctor about your options and what works for your lifestyle.

When should you talk to your doctor?

Early detection is the best way to control your symptoms and the progression of emphysema. If you have trouble breathing or have a history of smoking, contact your doctor sooner rather than later. They care about your respiratory health and will help you come up with a plan so you can live your best life.

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