Over 1 million Americans are forced to lead restricted lives because they have emphysema, a chronic lung condition. With emphysema, the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs are destroyed. The lung loses its elasticity, along with its ability to take in oxygen. The vast majority of people with emphysema are cigarette smokers aged 50 or older. In fact, emphysema is sometimes called “the smoker’s disease” because of its strong link with cigarettes. Exposure to irritants in the workplace and environment can also cause the disease. Only 3 to 5 percent of all cases of emphysema are caused by genetic factors.

Signs and Symptoms

Emphysema takes a number of years to develop. Early symptoms can be easily missed. Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Breathing through pursed lips
  • Shortness of breath on exertion
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Slight body build with marked weight loss and barrel chest

Emphysema is often accompanied by chronic bronchitis. Together they are called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Persons with chronic bronchitis have symptoms of coughing and excess sputum.

Treatment and Care

A doctor can diagnose emphysema based on your medical history, a physical exam, a chest X-ray, and a lung-function test (spirometry). By the time emphysema is detected, however, anywhere from 50Ð70 percent of your lung tissue may already be destroyed. At that point, your doctor may recommend the following:

  • A program to help you stop smoking
  • Avoidance of secondhand smoke
  • Avoidance of dust, fumes, pollutants, and other irritating inhalants
  • Physical therapy to help loosen mucus in your lungs (if chronic bronchitis accompanies the emphysema)
  • Daily exercise
  • A diet that includes adequate amounts of all essential nutrients
  • Prescription medication which may include a bronchodilator, steroids, and antibiotics
  • Annual flu vaccinations
  • A pneumonia vaccination given once as recommended by your doctor
  • Supplemental oxygen as needed

Emphysema can’t be reversed, so prevention is the only real way to avoid permanent damage.

{Note: Persons with emphysema having severe symptoms may need emergency care.}

(See “Places to Get Information & Help” under “Lung Diseases” on page 376.)

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Written by American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Explore Wellness in 2021