Emphysema is a lung disease in which the air sacs within the lungs, called alveoli, are damaged to the extent that they can no longer help to move air in the lungs.
If your loved one has emphysema, it’s difficult for their body to get rid of carbon dioxide and to get oxygen into their body. When they exhale, old air becomes trapped, leaving no room for fresh, oxygen-rich air to enter. As a result, they may often feel as though they can’t get enough air.
The two main hallmarks of emphysema are a chronic cough and shortness of breath.
The main cause of emphysema is long-term exposure to airborne irritants. These irritants include:
Tobacco or marijuana smoke
Risk Factors of Emphysema
Many factors can increase the risk of emphysema, including the following:
Smoking: Smokers are more likely to develop emphysema than non-smokers. This includes smoking cigars and pipes. The risk increases with the number of years and the amount of tobacco an individual smokes.
Exposure to secondhand smoke: Even if one doesn’t smoke themselves, if they are exposed to secondhand smoke, they inadvertently inhale the smoke, which can increase their risk of emphysema.
Exposure to fumes or dust: Some people are exposed to fumes or dust in their work environment. This includes fumes from chemicals or dust from cotton, grain, or wood.
Exposure to pollution: Breathing pollutants, both indoor and outdoor, increases the risk of emphysema.
Age: Most people experience signs of illness between 40 and 60 years old.
If the doctor suspects emphysema, they may recommend tests, including:
Imaging tests: A chest X-ray can help diagnose emphysema. This X-ray can also show how advanced the disease is.
Lab tests: Blood drawn from an artery can determine how well the lungs transfer oxygen into the bloodstream.
Lung function test: A lung function test is non-invasive and measures how much air the lungs can hold and how well the air flows in and out of the lungs. One of the most common tests uses a simple instrument called a Spirometer, which you blow into.
Can emphysema be cured?
Emphysema cannot be cured, but treatments can help relieve and control the symptoms.
Emphysema Treatment Options
Treatment options for emphysema include:
Medications: Due to its nature, emphysema doesn’t respond to medication. It’s very likely, however, that your loved one has emphysema in combination with other lung issues that fall under the umbrella of COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Some medications help to control COPD symptoms, and it’s possible that your doctor will prescribe one or more of them. These medications, usually bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, and antibiotics, help open the breathing passages to prevent constricted breathing.
Pulmonary Rehabilitation: People with lung problems such as emphysema often experience depression or anxiety because they fear being unable to breathe and often cannot do all the things they once loved to do. Pulmonary rehabilitation helps them get their lungs as strong as possible so they can reclaim the life they love.
Oxygen Therapy: Oxygen therapy covers quite a few different types of treatment. Very few people need long-term oxygen therapy day and night. This usually occurs with extreme lung damage. Most often, people who need oxygen therapy need it periodically during the day, during physical activity, or to help relieve sudden shortness of breath. Your loved one might initially be self-conscious about oxygen therapy, so you might need to work with them to overcome this.
Quit Smoking: If your loved one has been diagnosed with emphysema and still smokes, that needs to change as quickly as possible. Smoking worsens the ability to breathe and damages the lungs more rapidly. Quitting smoking is really tough, though, especially after smoking for many years. Cutting back is helpful, so don’t look at their inability to quit immediately as a failure. The doctor and care team have many tools and advice to help you work with your loved one to quit smoking for good.
Emphysema is very serious, but you can help your loved one manage the symptoms.
If left untreated, emphysema can result in serious complications, including:
Collapsed lung: This is a life-threatening condition when it occurs in an individual with emphysema because their lungs are already compromised.
Holes in the lung: Holes in the lung, also known as giant bullae, can make it difficult for the lung to expand which can cause infection.
Heart problems: Emphysema can increase the pressure in the arteries that connect the lungs to the heart. This pressure can cause areas of the heart to expand and weaken.
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