Emphysema is one of the diseases that comprises COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Emphysema develops over time and involves the gradual damage of lung tissue, specifically the destruction of the alveoli (tiny air sacs). Gradually, this damage causes the air sacs to rupture and create one big air pocket instead of many small ones. This reduction in the lung surface area traps air in the damaged tissue and prevents oxygen from moving through the bloodstream. Additionally, this blockage causes the lungs to slowly overfill and makes breathing increasingly more difficult.

Key Facts About Emphysema

  • Over three million people in the United States have been diagnosed with emphysema.
  • Emphysema is one of the most preventable respiratory illnesses because it is so strongly linked to smoking. Air pollutants, an alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, and respiratory infections can also play a role, but smoking is considered the number one cause.
  • Signs and symptoms of emphysema take years to develop, but once they start, they generally include shortness of breath, coughing with mucus, wheezing and chest tightness.
  • Several tests are needed to diagnose emphysema including chest X-rays, pulse oximetry, spirometry and pulmonary function tests, arterial blood gas test and electrocardiogram (ECG).
  • Though emphysema cannot be cured, many treatments are available to help manage symptoms. Bronchodilator medications relax the muscles, anti-inflammatory medication can reduce airway inflammation, oxygen therapy can assist patients who need help breathing. In extreme situations, lung volume reduction surgery can relieve pressure by removing a portion of diseased lung tissue.

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