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What is Emphysema by Allison Torno

By at February 19, 2014 | 8:19 am | Print

Emphysema is a common type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which causes people to have difficulty breathing. Emphysema is a result of damage to the inner lining of the lungs that is irreversible. Over time, emphysema changes the air sacs located in the inner walls of the lungs into oversized pockets with vast holes. Due to the change in the size and quantity of the air sacs in the lungs, the surface area of the lungs is lessened, which in turn decreases the amount of oxygen that is able to get to your blood stream. Emphysema also damages the small fibers that surround the airways leading to the air sacs, causing them to cave-in, which prevents air from escaping the lungs. This causes someone to have shortness of breath because it takes them longer to empty their lungs compared to someone with healthy lungs. Many people have this lung disease and do not know it for years, until it begins to prevent them from participating in daily tasks. It is important to see a doctor, particularly a specialist (pulmonologist) when you cannot speak due to shortness of breath, your lips and/or fingernails turn blue/ gray, have a fast heartbeat, or you are not mentally alert.

There are a few known causes of emphysema, but the main cause of this lung disease is smoking. Both tobacco smoke and marijuana smoke can cause emphysema. People have also been known to develop emphysema from secondhand smoke. Air pollution is also believed to be a cause. Exposure to fumes or coal and/or silica dust is also thought to play a role in the development of this disease. Basically, when someone is exposed to airborne irritants over a long period of time, their chances of developing emphysema are dramatically increased. However there is another cause of emphysema in which it is inherited genetically, known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a protein in the blood that helps to prevent white blood cells from damaging tissues. When this protein is deficient, the white blood cells in the body are continuously damaging the tissues located in the lungs. If smoking is combined with this deficiency, the damage to the lungs can be worse.

When you see your doctor, he or she may order a few different tests in order to determine if you have emphysema: imaging tests, lab tests, and lung function tests. Imaging tests include a chest x-ray, which may rule out any other causes of shortness of breath, and a CT scan, which may help to rule out the need for lung surgery. As for lab tests, your doctor may order that blood be drawn from an artery in the wrist to measure how your lungs take in oxygen and discard carbon dioxide from the bloodstream. The final test your doctor may order is a noninvasive lung function test. Lung function test measures three important things: how much air your lungs hold, how air flows through the lungs, and how well the lungs deliver oxygen to the bloodstream.

The damage in the lungs caused by emphysema is irreversible, but there are a few types of treatments available to patients. One can take medications such as smoking cessation drugs, bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, and antibiotics. The two types of therapy available to emphysema patients are pulmonary rehabilitation, and supplemental oxygen. These therapeutic methods are intended to help patients cope with the symptoms of emphysema, allowing them to participate in daily tasks. And finally if your symptoms are so severe that the symptoms make living unbearable, your doctor may suggest surgery. There are typically two different kinds of surgery performed on patients with emphysema. The first is lung volume reduction. This surgery involves removing damaged lung tissue so that the rest of the healthy tissue is able to do its job properly. The second type of surgery performed on emphysema patients is a lung transplant. This is usually a last resort for when all other treatment plans have failed.

While emphysema is an irreversible lung disease, it is manageable to live with and slow its progression when you follow your doctor’s treatment plans. Since the most common cause of emphysema is smoking, the best way to prevent it is to quit smoking immediately. However, if you already have it, it is best to quit smoking in order to prevent the damage to your lungs from worsening. Your personal treatment options may vary depending on the severity of damage to your lungs, whether it is mild, moderate, or severe.

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