Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It occurs when the walls of the alveoli, the air sacs in the lungs, become damaged, resulting in the development of large pockets. When this happens, respiratory function is impaired and the level of oxygen in the bloodstream decreases. Emphysema is usually caused by smoking or other environmental factors and cannot be cured. The disease can be managed with treatment, but the damage done to the alveoli cannot be repaired.

Causes of Emphysema

Because emphysema is most often caused by environmental factors, it usually shows up as the patient ages. Symptoms of the disease typically begin when the patient is between 40 and 60 years of age and gradually worsen. Emphysema is caused by:

  • Smoking (80 to 90 percent of the time)
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to environmental fumes or dust

Emphysema can be caused by breathing in any type of pollutants, including car exhaust, manufacturing, or chemical fumes, heating fuel, or dust from grain, cotton, wood or coal. Individuals in certain occupations, such as miners, are therefore at increased risk of developing the disease.

In rare cases, there is a genetic link to emphysema. In such cases, the illness is caused by a hereditary deficiency of a protein known to protect the elasticity of lung tissue.

Symptoms of Emphysema

The primary symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath, usually first noticed during everyday activities like stair climbing. As the disease progresses, the following symptoms may also appear:

  • Wheezing or coughing
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Decreased sexual function
  • Susceptibility to respiratory infection

At advanced stages of emphysema, patients may lose mental alertness due to lack of a proper oxygen supply to the brain.

Diagnosis of Emphysema

Emphysema may be diagnosed using a number of different methods, including:

  • X-rays
  • CT scans
  • Blood tests
  • Lung function tests, most often spirometry

Lung function tests measure lung capacity to take in and release air, as well as to transport oxygen into the body.

Treatment of Emphysema

Emphysema is a degenerative condition, but there are treatments available to relieve symptoms and to slow disease progression. Some of these treatments include:

  • Oral or inhaled corticosteroids
  • Bronchodilators
  • Antibiotics to treat infections
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Oxygen therapy

At times, the first necessary treatment to slow the progression of emphysema is medication to help the patient stop smoking. If symptoms exacerbate and become severe, surgery may be recommended. There are two types of surgery performed to treat emphysema patients: lung volume reduction surgery and lung transplantation. During the former, small sections of damaged lung tissue are removed; during the latter, the damaged lung is completed replaced.

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