Emphysema: What are the Causes, Symptoms and Treatments?

by | May 13, 2019 | Emphysema

Emphysema is a lung condition that affects the air sacs, or alveoli, in the lungs. Inside these small balloon-like sacs, oxygen from the air we breathe is transferred to our blood. The alveoli need to be very thin to allow this exchange to occur, which means they can be easily damaged. Emphysema occurs when the linings of the air sacs start to break down — forming larger air spaces instead of multiple smaller ones.

How Emphysema Can Affect Your Life

Disruption of the alveoli makes it hard for the lungs to do their job properly. When a patient with emphysema breathes in, a smaller amount of oxygenated air makes it to the bloodstream. When he or she breathes out, more waste products remain in the lungs. Because of this disrupted breathing cycle, one of the telltale signs of emphysema is constantly feeling short of breath.
If you or a loved one is living with emphysema, we want to help you manage this condition and find options for relief. A great place to start is educating yourself about the causes, symptoms, diagnostic process and treatment options.

What Causes Emphysema?

Along with chronic bronchitis, emphysema is one of the two primary progressive lung conditions that doctors diagnose as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Like other forms of COPD, the most common cause of emphysema is cigarette smoke.
The carcinogenic smoke from cigarettes irritates the air sacs and produces an inflammatory response. After years and years of smoking, the air sacs become less capable of repairing themselves and can eventually rupture — causing emphysema.
Other emphysema contributors include:

  • Exposure to dust and fumes in the workplace
  • Air pollution
  • Other forms of smoking, such as pipes or cigars
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Age
  • Genetics

It can take years of damage before symptoms begin to appear, which is why emphysema is more likely to be diagnosed in people over the age of 40.

What Are the Symptoms of Emphysema?

In addition to shortness of breath, emphysema symptoms are caused by a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. For example, people with emphysema will often develop a bluish tint to the fingernails or lips that is more pronounced with exertion. Another often-reported issue is a general lack of energy and fatigue that makes it difficult to stay active and can lead to a worsening of the condition.

The Emphysema-Bronchitis Connection

Although many emphysema sufferers experience a persistent cough, this is actually a symptom of chronic bronchitis. These two conditions often coexist because the same factors, such as cigarette smoke, that damage the air sacs also damage the bronchial tubes in the lungs.
It is extremely important to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment at the first sign of symptoms you believe may be related to emphysema. The earlier treatment begins, the less long-term damage it can potentially do to the lungs.

How Do Physicians Diagnose Emphysema?

To determine if emphysema is the underlying cause of symptoms, doctors use many of the same diagnostic steps as they would for other conditions. These steps include:
A full physical examination, including breathing tests to listen to the lungs
A review of medical history to check for emphysema risk factors
Diagnostic testing, including imagery, such as a chest X-ray
Lung function tests to determine how well the lungs hold air and transfer oxygen
If emphysema is diagnosed, you can begin developing a treatment plan. Although emphysema is not curable, there are many effective treatments and lifestyle changes that can make this condition manageable.

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How Do You Manage and Treat Emphysema?

In many cases, smoking cessation is the first line of treatment for emphysema, since so many patients are still smoking upon diagnosis. Quitting smoking as soon as possible can help slow down the progression of emphysema and improve symptoms. You can also receive counseling regarding breathing techniques and nutritional improvements that can potentially relieve symptoms and slow down damage to the air sacs.
Many patients with emphysema also rely on oral and inhaled steroids, supplemental oxygen, bronchodilators to help open up air passages and antibiotics if a respiratory infection develops. One form of treatment that more emphysema patients are turning to is regenerative cellular therapy, which uses a patient’s own cells to help restore lung function. At Lung Health Institute, we’re a leader in regenerative medicine and are proud to offer this exciting form of treatment to our patients.
Take the next step to find relief. Contact one of our patient coordinators today for more information or to schedule a free consultation.

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