What is Emphysema?
Emphysema gradually damages the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs, making you progressively more short of breath. Emphysema is one of several diseases known collectively as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Smoking is the leading cause of emphysema. Your lungs' alveoli are clustered like bunches of grapes. In emphysema, the inner walls of the air sacs weaken and eventually rupture — creating one larger air space instead of many small ones. This reduces the surface area of the lungs and, in turn, the amount of oxygen that reaches your bloodstream. When you exhale, the damaged alveoli don't work properly and old air becomes trapped, leaving no room for fresh, oxygen-rich air to enter. Treatment may slow the progression of emphysema, but it can't reverse the damage.
What are the Symptoms of Emphysema?
You can have emphysema for many years without noticing any signs or symptoms. The main symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath, which usually begins gradually. You may start avoiding activities that cause you to be short of breath, so the symptom doesn't become a problem until it starts interfering with daily tasks. Emphysema eventually causes shortness of breath even while you're at rest.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you've had unexplained shortness of breath for several months, especially if it's getting worse or it's interfering with your daily activities. Don't try to attribute it to your deconditioning or age or weight. Seek immediate medical attention if:
- You're so short of breath, you can't climb stairs
- Your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray with exertion
- You're not mentally alert
What Causes Emphysema?
The main cause of emphysema is long-term exposure to airborne irritants, including:
- Tobacco smoke
- Marijuana smoke
- Air pollution
- Manufacturing fumes
Rarely, emphysema is caused by an inherited deficiency of a protein that protects the elastic structures in the lungs. It's called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency emphysema.
What are the Risk factors associated with Emphysema?
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. The risk for all types of smokers increases with the number of years and amount of tobacco smoked.
- Age. Although the lung damage that occurs in emphysema develops gradually, most people with tobacco-related emphysema begin to experience symptoms of the disease between the ages of 40 and 60.
- Exposure to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke, also known as passive or environmental tobacco smoke, is smoke that you inadvertently inhale from someone else's cigarette, pipe or cigar. Being around secondhand smoke increases your risk of emphysema.
- Occupational exposure to fumes or dust. If you breathe fumes from certain chemicals or dust from grain, cotton, wood or mining products, you're more likely to develop emphysema. This risk is even greater if you smoke.
When a doctor suspects you have emphysema, based on your complaints, a physical examination will be performed. The doctor will pay particular attention to your breathing sounds, your heart sounds, and your general physical appearance. A number of tests may be ordered or performed in the office or in the Emergency Department. These tests serve to clarify the extent of the disease, the remaining lung function, and the presence of lung infections.