Published January 11, 2012
Emphysema, one of several diseases collectively known as common obstructive pulmonary disease, is a long-term, progressive illness and one of the most common lung diseases. Emphysema occurs in the lungs as a result of the over-inflation of air sacs, or alveoli. This gradually damages the alveoli and results in a shortness of breath that becomes progressively worse over time. The condition slowly damages the elastic fibers holding open the airways that lead to the air sacs, which causes them to collapse during exhaling, making it more difficult to breathe. Treatment may help slow the progression of emphysema, but usually the damage caused cannot be reversed.
The single most common cause of emphysema is smoking, but long-term exposure to other air irritants, such as air pollution, industrial fumes and coal or silica dust may also contribute to its development. These irritants cause swelling in the bronchioles (the first passageways by which the air passes through the nose or mouth to the air sacs of the lungs) and activate enzymes that attack and damage lung tissue. In some rarer cases, emphysema may also be caused by an inherited genetic deficiency of the protein that protects the elastic structures in the lung from damage.
The first and most obvious way to prevent the development of emphysema is to avoid smoking. You should also be wary of indoor pollution such as fumes and smoke, particularly in the kitchen or workplace, as long-term exposure will damage your lungs. If you work with chemical fumes, be sure to wear an appropriate mask or breathing device and, if possible, keep the area well ventilated. If you have developed emphysema, early detection is vital to successful treatment, so be sure to see a doctor if you begin noticing symptoms.
Since emphysema is a progressive disease that becomes gradually worse over time, symptoms may not be immediately recognizable. The main symptom will likely be a persistent shortness of breath, typically characterized by heavy, labored breathing and gasping. This may be also be accompanied by chronic coughing and wheezing that may or may not produce a mucus called sputum. In addition, sufferers may also experience a loss of appetite, weight loss, or a reduced tolerance to exercise. If you have been experiencing shortness of breath for several months – particularly if it appears to be getting worse – consult a doctor immediately.
Treatment options for emphysema vary greatly depending on how early the condition is detected, says the National Institute of Health. Since there is no known cure for the disease, the main goal of treatment is to simply inhibit its development and stop further lung destruction. Certain non-medication therapies can help slow the progression of emphysema and improve the sufferer’s overall quality of life. Pulmonary rehabilitation helps to improve fitness and respiration through breathing exercises and techniques, while supplemental oxygen may aid in relieving the effects of emphysema. Doctors can prescribe additional medication such as antibiotics or bronchodilators (a substance that dilates the bronchi and bronchioles) to help suppress symptoms. Depending on the severity of your condition, doctors may recommend one or more types of surgery, including a lung volume reduction or a lung transplant.