Girl blowing dandelion

Emphysema

Emphysema is a chronic disease that effects almost 3 million Americans.  It causes changes in the lungs that make it harder and harder for a person to breathe.

How Emphysema Changes the Lungs

Emphysema creates permanent changes in the lung.  These changes include a break down of elastins (the elastic fibers in the lungs) as well as destruction of alveoli (the tiny air sacs that allow oxygen to enter the bloodstream).  As you will see, the combination of these changes greatly impact the ability to breathe.

Emphysema Breaks Down Elastins

The lungs are made up of tiny elastic fibers similar to those found in socks and elastic waistbands on pants.  These fibers, called elastins, give the lung "elastic recoil" which helps us to exhale the air in our lungs.  Just as the elastic fibers in a rubber balloon help to sqeeze the air out when it is inflated, elastins help to sqeeze the air out of the lungs when we breathe out.  Emphysema breaks down these elastic fibers and makes it difficult to exhale completely.

Emphysema destroys Air Sacs of the Lung

Emphysema destroys alveoli and decreases the lungs ability to get oxygen into the blood stream and remove dangerous carbon dioxide (CO2) from the body.  CO2 is one of the main components that controls our breathing.  A slight rise in CO2 triggers the body to want to breathe faster and/or deeper.

Symptoms of Emphysema

The primary symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath. Other symptoms that may be experienced are generally related to chronic bronchitis which often is found in emphysema patients. Chronic bronchitis symptoms include coughing and/or wheezing.

Emphysema Treatment

While there is no cure for emphysema, treatment of symptoms can provide great relief.  Participation in a pulmonary rehabilitation program is the best treatment for emphysema at this time.  Other treatments for emphysema may include bronchodilators, supplemental oxygen, steroids, and quitting smoking.