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. Although it can be managed with treatment, it cannot be cured because the damage to the alveoli is irreversible.

Causes of Emphysema

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

  • 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 various types of pollutants, including car exhaust; manufacturing, chemical or heating-fuel fumes; and grain, cotton, wood or coal dust. People in certain occupations, such as mining, are therefore at increased risk of developing emphysema.

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 the following:

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

Lung-function tests measure the lungs' capacity for taking in and releasing air, as well as for transporting oxygen into the body.

Treatment of Emphysema

Emphysema is a degenerative condition, but there are treatments available to relieve its symptoms and slow its progression. They include the following:

  • 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: 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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