The second of the two main diseases that fall under the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) umbrella is emphysema. While chronic bronchitis affects the lining of the bronchial tubes, emphysema affects the air sacs in the lungs. According to the Mayo Clinic, emphysema turns the spherical air sacs — clustered like bunches of grapes — into large, irregular pockets with gaping holes in their inner walls over time. This reduces the surface area of the lungs and, in turn, the amount of oxygen that reaches the bloodstream.
As the disease progresses, the elastic fibers that hold open the small airways that lead to the air sacs are also slowly damaged, making it difficult to remove the air in the lungs.
Causes of Emphysema
While tobacco smoking is the most common cause of emphysema, it can also be caused by smoking marijuana, air pollution, manufacturing fumes, or coal and silica dust, according to the Mayo Clinic. “Emphysema is caused by many of the same irritants as chronic bronchitis,” says Bob Messenger, RRT, Clinical Respiratory Education Specialist for Invacare Corporation. “Workplace fumes, chemical irritants and air pollution can all cause emphysema and chronic bronchitis. And you usually don’t get one disease without a component of the other.”
To avoid emphysema, quit smoking if you still participate in the habit, and try to avoid second-hand smoke, fumes, dust and pollution.
Symptoms of Emphysema
“Those with emphysema will most likely feel like air is trapped in their lungs,” Messenger says. “And this is because it is indeed trapped in the lungs.” Because the main symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath, which begins gradually, many people go years before knowing they have emphysema. “Emphysema often causes a severe sense of shortness of breath, difficulty with exhalation and becoming easily winded with exercise,” Messenger says. However, the disease will eventually cause shortness of breath during simple daily tasks and even while the body is at rest. It is important to see your doctor if you’ve had shortness of breath for several months or if the shortness of breath is getting worse or interfering with your daily activities, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The Clinic also insists on calling 911 if you experience:
- Shortness of breath so intense that you can no longer talk
- Blue or gray fingernails or lips
- A decline in mental alertness
- Tachycardia or very fast heartbeat
Treatment of Emphysema
Once you are diagnosed with emphysema, you may be encouraged to take part in a pulmonary rehabilitation program, which can teach you breathing exercises and techniques to improve your breathing. This then improves your health and your ability to remain physically active.
To slow the progression of emphysema, stop smoking and avoid other respiratory irritants, like those from exhaust, paint, perfumes, incense and candles. The Mayo Clinic also suggests that you should exercise regularly, protect yourself from cold air and avoid respiratory infections whenever possible.
Those with severe emphysema may be prescribed supplemental oxygen. In this case, you should use your oxygen as much as your doctor prescribes, particularly when you exercise. Using portable oxygen solutions can help you remain active and independent, even with COPD.
To learn more about how portable oxygen solutions can help you maintain an active lifestyle, visit the Oxygen & You page.