Emphysema is a chronic respiratory condition most often caused by the destruction of lung tissue by toxins contained in cigarette smoke. This, in turn, leads to chronic overinflation of the lungs, greatly decreasing their ability to function.
Like chronic bronchitis, emphysema is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 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:
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:
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. Chest x-rays may also be done.
Since, at present, emphysema cannot be cured, the goals of treatment are to:
To relieve symptoms, one or more of the following treatments may be used:
Emphysema may also be treated with surgery, such as:
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 quit smoking.
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:
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
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 by Michael Woods, 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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