Information on the causes of emphysema symptoms.

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  1. What is Emphysema?
  2. Diagnosing Emphysema
  3. What Causes Emphysema?
  4. Help for Emphysema
  5. More Information on Emphysema

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a long-term and progressive respiratory disease that causes shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. Damage to the small air sacs and airways within the lungs causes the lungs to lose elasticity, making it impossible to completely exhale air.

So while lungs with normal elasticity will stretch to capacity to take in fresh air and then easily exhale carbon dioxide (like a balloon), lungs with emphysema have become less elastic and so have to work extra hard to exhale. The more CO2 that remains in the lung sacs after exhaling means less oxygen can be inhaled with each breath. As emphysema progresses, breathing becomes effortful and energy-consuming, and it slowly begins to interfere with certain physical activities.

It is important to remember that while emphysema is a serious and frustrating condition, it develops slowly (usually over years) and there are a number of treatment options that can further slow down its progression.

What are the Symptoms of Emphysema?

As emphysema progresses so slowly, most people do not notice any symptoms or slight changes in breathing during the early stages of the illness. Unfortunately, this means that most people are only diagnosed when symptoms are severe, by which time the disease is in advanced stages and serious irreversible damage has already occurred. Symptoms may include:

  • Shortness of breath or dyspnea
  • A persistent cough (with or without phlegm)
  • Wheezing
  • A feeling of tightness in the chest
  • A barrel-like distended chest
  • Lowered oxygen levels may result in fatigue, irritability and difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent headaches

Diagnosing Emphysema

Diagnosing emphysema will begin with a detailed medical history and a physical examination. Your physician will need to know the details of your smoking history and as much information as you can give regarding all your symptoms. Further tests such as a lung function test, blood tests, chest X-rays, and a CT-scan may also be recommended to make an accurate diagnosis and to determine the full extent of the damage to lung tissue.

What Causes Emphysema?

The main cause of emphysema is smoking. By smoking, the lungs are continuously exposed to harsh chemicals and irritants. It is the body’s reactions to these irritants entering the airways and alveoli that cause much of the damage associated with emphysema.

As foreign particles enter the lungs, defensive cells called macrophages are released which help to attack and destroy these foreign inhaled particles. Unfortunately, these macrophages also destroy certain proteins that are involved in keeping the lung’s elasticity. In addition, the chemicals in cigarettes destroy and paralyze the delicate cilia in the bronchial tubes, which are responsible for sweeping irritants and germs out of the lungs. As these cilia no longer perform, germs and foreign particles remain in the airways, causing inflammation and permanent damage to lung tissue.

Another cause of emphysema is a deficiency of the protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAt) which is responsible for protecting the elastic structures of the lungs. This hereditary deficiency is the main cause of early onset emphysema or emphysema in people that have never smoked.

Help for Emphysema

Conventional Treatment

Conventional treatments for emphysema focus predominantly on relieving symptoms and avoiding further respiratory complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Treatment may include:

Medications: There are a number of different medications that may be prescribed to help reduce symptoms and assist with easier breathing. These may include bronchodilators, diuretics, and corticosteroids. Many physicians will also recommend antibiotics and flu or pneumonia vaccines to prevent further lung complications. Ask your health care provider to inform you of all side-effects of any medication prescribed and be wary of prolonged use of antibiotics as these have a detrimental effect on the immune system.

Oxygen Therapy: Many people with severe emphysema find great relief with continued or transient oxygen use. This will increase the amount of oxygen available to the lungs and blood stream and may relieve some of the debilitating symptoms. There are different types of oxygen therapy and different methods of administration so speak to you health care provider about what options would best suit you should oxygen therapy be necessary.

Surgery: Two surgical options are available for those with advanced emphysema. The first is called lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS), in which surgeons remove small pieces of damaged lung tissue. This creates extra space within the lung cavity allowing the healthy tissue and diaphragm to work more efficiently. The emphysema still progresses slowly so this is not a permanent solution. The effects of this procedure are usually felt for about two years. The second option is a lung transplant in which a either one or both lungs are replaced with a lung from a donor. This option is limited as there is a long waiting list and a scarcity of donor lungs.

More Information on Emphysema

Tips on Slowing the Progression of Emphysema
  • If you do smoke, now is the perfect time to quit smoking naturally. This is the most important thing that you can do for your health at this point. It is also important that you avoid second-hand smoke, so ask family and friends not to smoke in your presence and sit in the non-smoking areas when going out.
  • Practice regular diaphragmatic breathing exercises that help you control your breathing with your abdominal muscles.
  • Avoid other respiratory irritants such as paint fumes, dust, air pollutants, perfumes and incense.
  • Keep healthy with a balanced diet and regular exercise.
  • Avoid respiratory infections where possible! Protect yourself against developing colds and flu and if they do appear, treat them as soon as possible so that they do not have time to develop into chest infections.
  • Drink plenty of water!
  • Avoid cold air. When you do go out in cold weather, wear a scarf over your nose and mouth to warm the air before it reaches your lungs.
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