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Emphysema – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Life Expectancy, Pictures

Updated on February 11, 2014

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a chronic disease of the lungs characterized by the inflation of the air sacs in the lungs resulting in breathing difficulties. It is one of the chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) since it is a long term and progressive condition in which the airflow during exhaling is hampered or slowed. This is due to the overly inflated alveoli or air sacs which prevent the flow of oxygen from the lungs to the bloodstream. This lung disease is typically caused by smoking or long-term inhalation of dust and industrial pollutants, although other factors could contribute to its development. Emphysema has no cure since damaged airways cannot be made to regenerate. Even so, this type of COPD can be treated and prevented.

Causes of Emphysema

Most cases of emphysema are due to cigarette smoking. The other factors that could contribute to its development are air pollution, alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, heredity, respiratory tract problems, and age.

  • Cigarette smoking

Aside from being the most common cause of emphysema, smoking cigarette is also the most dangerous of the factors that cause the disease. Cigarette contains over four thousand hazardous chemicals, most of which are either toxic to the body or carcinogenic. The very toxic cigarette smoke causes irrevocable damage to the lungs when it is inhaled, as well as irritates and inflames the airways resulting in hampered air flow. A significant number of emphysema patients are chain smokers or have a history of smoking heavily.

  • Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency

Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is a genetic aberration that may make those who have it at high risk of developing emphysema. Also called alpha-1-antiprotease, alpha-1-antitrypsin, is a substance produced by the body to combat protease or trypsin. Trypsin is a digestive enzyme that aids in food digestion and fighting off toxic materials or bacteria that may harm the body. However, it could pose a danger when it is released in the lungs and no alpha-1-antitrypsin is present to control it. Trypsin will cause damage to the lung tissues similar to that caused by cigarette smoking.

  • Heredity

Though the root cause is still not clear, emphysema is observed to affect close members of a family. It is believed that the way the body reacts to certain air pollutants, irritants and smoke may be hereditary. This could be the reason why family relatives of individuals with emphysema are at high risk of developing the disease as well.

  • Air pollution

Toxic pollutants in the air including industrial pollutants as well as second hand smoke can increase the chance of emphysema, especially for smokers. These pollutants have the same result as smoking- they cause inflammation and eventual damage of tissues in the lungs.

  • Respiratory tract problems

Problems involving the respiratory system could add to the risk of this type of COPD. Bronchial asthma and infections of the respiratory tract may aid or worsen emphysema since they contribute to the destruction of the lung tissues.

  • Age

As an individual gets older, his or her lungs get weaker affecting optimum functioning. Since more and more lung tissues deteriorate with age, the chances of developing emphysema in turn become higher.

Symptoms of Emphysema

Emphysema is long term and progressive, which means it starts slowly and shows mild symptoms that eventually become severe. Some of the signs of the disease include:

  • shortness of breath with exertion which turns to constant breathlessness

  • chronic coughing

  • wheezing

  • poor appetite and weight loss

  • fatigue

  • chest tightness

  • hyper-expanded chest or barrel chest

  • pursed lip breathing to forcefully empty trapped air from the airways

  • cyanosis attributed to the lack of oxygen

  • respiratory and lung infections

  • pneumothorax

Diagnosis and Treatment of Emphysema

Emphysema can be diagnosed with a combination of physical examination, review of the patient's medical history, blood tests, CT scan or x-ray, and lung function tests.

The symptoms of emphysema are caused by the damage the lungs have sustained. To treat emphysema, it is vital to stop further destruction of the lung tissues. It is imperative to avoid exposure to the factors that caused the disease in the first place. For cigarette smoking-induced cases, it is crucial to stop smoking. Treatment methods that could help in improving the condition include the use of bronchodilators, antibiotics, corticosteroids, oxygen therapy, and lung and pneumothorax surgeries, if needed. For emphysema due to alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, the use of purified human alpha-1-antitrypsin could be recommended. Immunizations against some of the common respiratory infections as well as exercise will help in preventing the condition from worsening.

Prognosis and Life Expectancy

Emphysema is typically diagnosed when it is already stage 2 or 3, which means the outlook is not good. Five years is the average life expectancy after diagnosis. But this could be reduced to as short as 2 years if smoking is not stopped or if treatment is delayed. The following is the life expectancy based on how advanced the disease is:-

  • Stage 1- normal life expectancy if smoking is stopped.

  • Stage 2, 3 – five year average with intensive treatment.

  • Stage 4 – prognosis is poor even with intensive treatment.


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