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Emphysema is a chronic respiratory condition most often caused by the destruction of lung tissue by toxins contained in cigarette smoke. This, in turn, leads to chronic overinflation of the lungs, greatly decreasing their ability to function.
Emphysema is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that progresses over a period of time. COPD also includes chronic bronchitis. Although one type may predominate, most people with COPD have some of both.
Emphysema results in destruction of the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs. Oxygen is delivered to the lungs and carbon dioxide is carried from the lungs across the walls of the alveoli. As more and more alveoli are damaged, it becomes harder and harder for the lungs to function, which can cause these symptoms:
As the disease progresses, breathing becomes increasingly difficult. In its most severe stage, virtually any physical activity becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Emphysema is usually the result of long-term exposure to harmful particles or gases, such as:
When a person complains of the chronic presence of the symptoms of emphysema, a physical exam and various lung function tests (spirometry) are done to confirm the diagnosis. Chest x-rays may also be done.
Since, at present, emphysema cannot be cured, the goals of treatment are to:
To relieve symptoms, one or more of the following treatments may be used:
Emphysema may also be treated with surgery, such as:
To slow emphysema's progression, the agent causing it must be removed. Since long-term smoking causes an overwhelming number of cases of emphysema, the only effective way to slow the progression of emphysema is to quit smoking.
There are many smoking cessation therapies available. Your doctor may also be able to prescribe a medication that may help you stop smoking.
To prevent the onset of emphysema:
Emphysema does not suddenly occur. It develops over a long period of time. At the first sign of any of the symptoms, talk to your doctor. The sooner emphysema is treated, the better the outcomes.
COPD. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 21, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Explore COPD. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd. Updated July 31, 2013. Accessed May 31, 2016.
Tutic M, Lardinois D, Imfeld S, Korom S, et al. Lung-volume reduction surgery as an alternative or bridging procedure to lung transplantation. Ann Thorac Surg. 2006;82(1):208-213.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 5/31/2016