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Wednesday, 12 February 2014 00:00

Managing Your Emphysema

What Is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a chronic disease of the lungs. It causes decreased lung function and swelling (inflammation) and irritation of airways. Emphysema often occurs with chronic bronchitis (these two conditions are called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD).

The lungs consist of two main parts: airways (bronchial tubes) and air sacs (alveoli). During a breath, air passes through airways and into air sacs, where oxygen enters the blood. In emphysema, air sacs become larger, their walls become stiff, and the sacs cannot hold enough air.

What Causes Emphysema?

The main cause is cigarette smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. Cigarette smoke destroys lung tissue and irritates airways.

Other risk factors include asthma, air pollution, and family history of emphysema.

What Are the Symptoms of Emphysema?

The main symptom is shortness of breath. Others are persistent cough, wheezing, decreased ability to exercise or do usual daily activities, and weight loss.

How Is Emphysema Diagnosed?

The doctor will talk about your symptoms with you and do a physical examination, especially of the chest. He or she will listen to the lungs with a stethoscope to see whether breathing is normal.
A monitor (pulse oximeter) may be used to measure the blood’s oxygen level.

Simple blood tests check general health. Some people may need blood tests for levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in an artery or for alpha-1-antitrypsin enzyme deficiency, a risk factor for emphysema.

A chest x-ray will be done to look at the lungs. Lung function testing (spirometry) may be done to tell whether the disease is emphysema or another lung disorder (e.g., asthma). The testing involves blowing into a tool to measure how much and how fast the lungs blow out air.

How Is Emphysema Treated?

Treatment depends on the severity of the emphysema. Severe disease may need treatment in the hospital.

The lifestyle change of stopping smoking is the most important step to slow the progress of the disease or even improve it.

Medicines that may help include bronchodilators and corticosteroids. Bronchodilators, usually given by inhalers, cause airways to open. Corticosteroids work by reducing inflammation. They may be given by inhalers or in pill form.

Oxygen may be given in a hospital emergency department. In severe cases, it may be provided in tanks for home use.

Antibiotics may be prescribed if a chest infection is suspected. Surgery may become an option for advanced emphysema in rare cases.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Emphysema:

  • DO quit smoking and avoid a smoky environment.
  • DO ask your doctor and support groups for help with quitting smoking.
  • DO visit your doctor regularly.
  • DO take your medicines as prescribed.
  • DO exercise regularly as tolerated,
  • DO get a flu shot every year and a pneumonia vaccination every 5 years.
  • DO contact your doctor about new or worsening symptoms.
  • DON’T delay going to the emergency department if you become very short of breath or notice your tongue, fingernails, skin, or lips are turning blue.
  • DON’T stop taking your medicines without checking with your doctor.

For more information, see the attachments below.

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