Emphysema occurs when the air sacs in your lungs are gradually destroyed, making you progressively more short of breath. Emphysema is one of several diseases known collectively as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Smoking is the leading cause of emphysema.
As it worsens, emphysema turns the spherical air sacs — clustered like bunches of grapes — into large, irregular pockets with gaping holes in their inner walls. This reduces the surface area of the lungs and, in turn, the amount of oxygen that reaches your bloodstream.
Emphysema also slowly destroys the elastic fibers that hold open the small airways leading to the air sacs. This allows these airways to collapse when you breathe out, so the air in your lungs can't escape. Treatment may slow the progression of emphysema, but it can't reverse the damage.
In emphysema, inflammation damages the fibers around the walls of the alveoli, causing them to lose their natural elasticity and eventually to rupture. This creates one large air space instead of ...
You can have emphysema for many years without noticing any signs or symptoms. The main symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath, which usually begins gradually. You may start avoiding activities that cause you to be short of breath, so the symptom doesn't become a problem until it starts interfering with daily tasks. Emphysema eventually causes shortness of breath even while you're at rest.
When to see a doctor
The main cause of emphysema is long-term exposure to airborne irritants, including:
Rarely, emphysema is caused by an inherited deficiency of a protein that protects the elastic structures in the lungs. It is called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency emphysema.
Factors that increase your risk of developing emphysema include:
People who have emphysema are also more likely to develop:
Preparing for your appointment
Your first appointment to check for emphysema may be with your primary doctor or with a specialist in lung diseases (pulmonologist).
What you can do
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
To determine if you have emphysema, your doctor may recommend a variety of imaging tests, lab tests and lung function tests.
Lung function tests
A spirometer is a diagnostic device that measures the amount of air you're able to breathe in and out and the time it takes you to exhale completely after you take a deep breath. ...
Treatments and drugs
Emphysema can't be cured, but treatments can help relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If you have emphysema, you can take a number of steps to halt its progression and to protect yourself from complications:
Coping and support
These suggestions may help you cope with emphysema:
To prevent emphysema, don't smoke and avoid breathing secondhand smoke. Wear a mask to protect your lungs if you work with chemical fumes or dust.
Last Updated: 2011-04-29
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