Emphysema

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Overview

Emphysema is a disease of the lungs that usually develops after many years of smoking. Both chronic bronchitis and emphysema belong to a group of lung diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Once it develops, emphysema can’t be reversed. This is why not smoking or stopping smoking is very important.

Emphysema is a condition that involves damage to the walls of the air sacs (alveoli) of the lung. Alveoli are small, thin-walled, very fragile air sacs located in clusters at the end of the bronchial tubes deep inside the lungs. There are about 300 million alveoli in normal lungs. As you breathe in air, the alveoli stretch, drawing oxygen in and transporting it to the blood. When you exhale, the alveoli shrink, forcing carbon dioxide out of the body.

When emphysema develops, the alveoli and lung tissue are destroyed. With this damage, the alveoli cannot support the bronchial tubes. The tubes collapse and cause an “obstruction” (a blockage), which traps air inside the lungs. Too much air trapped in the lungs can give some patients a barrel-chested appearance. Also, because there are fewer alveoli, less oxygen will be able to move into the bloodstream.


Symptoms

Symptoms of emphysema may include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and an increased production of mucus. Often times, symptoms may not be noticed until 50 percent or more of the lung tissue has been destroyed. Until then, the only symptoms may be a gradual development of shortness of breath and tiredness (fatigue), which can be mistaken for other illnesses. People who develop emphysema have an increased risk of pneumonia, bronchitis, and other lung infections. See your doctor if any of these symptoms arise:


Shortness of breath, especially during light exercise or climbing steps

Ongoing feeling of not being able to get enough air

Long-term cough or “smoker’s cough”

Wheezing

Long-term mucus production

Ongoing fatigue

Frequent coughing or wheezing.

A cough that produces a lot mucus.

Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity.

A whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe.

Tightness in your chest.

Causes

Smoking is the number one factor. Because of this, emphysema is one of the most preventable types of respiratory diseases. Air pollutants in the home and workplace, genetic (inherited) factors (alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency), and respiratory infections can also play a role in causing emphysema.


Cigarette smoking not only destroys lung tissue, it also irritates the airways. This causes inflammation and damage to cilia that line the bronchial tubes. This results in swollen airways, mucus production, and difficulty clearing the airways. All of these changes can lead to shortness of breath.

Risk factors

Factors that increase your risk of developing emphysema include:

Smoking. Emphysema is most likely to develop in cigarette smokers, but cigar and pipe smokers also are susceptible. ...

Age. ...

Exposure to secondhand smoke. ...

Occupational exposure to fumes or dust. ...

Exposure to indoor and outdoor pollution.

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Complications

Following are some most frequently encountered complications of emphysema:

Respiratory insufficiency or failure.

Pneumonia.

Pneumothorax.

Chronic atelectasis.

Cor pulmonale.

Interstitial emphysema.

Recurrent respiratory tract infections.

Respiratory acidosis, hypoxia, and coma.

Prevention

 Since smoking causes most cases of emphysema, the best way to prevent it is to not smoke. It's also important to try to avoid lung irritants such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes, and dusts.