Emphysema causes shortness of breath because the air sacs are damaged in the lungs. When this happens for a long period of time, then the air sacs will become weak and they will eventually rupture. When this happens, then there are large air spaces instead of the common, small air sacs, and the surface area of the lungs will drastically decrease as well. When exhaling, the damaged air sacs do not work and store old oxygen. When old oxygen is trapped in the air sacs, then there is no room for oxygen-rich air to enter the lungs. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is caused by both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The cause of COPD is smoking.
Symptoms may linger for years without noticing them. Shortness of breath is the main symptom associated with emphysema. This symptom does not typically just appear overnight, and will begin gradually. Eventually, you will have shortness of breath when you are just sitting still. Another reason that you may not really notice your symptoms is that you will avoid activities that make you feel as though you are short of breath, until it becomes unavoidable.
You will want to see your doctor if you have been experiencing shortness of breath for many months and it is still not getting better. Do not ignore these symptoms, or make excuses for them either. You may want to use excuses such as that you are aging or becoming out of shape, but there may be a real medical condition that needs to be treated.
Seek immediate medical attention if you are no longer able to climb stairs, if your lips and fingernails turn blue/grey with any type of exertion, or you feel like you are not mentally alert. These are good signs that you are not getting the proper amount of oxygen.
The main cause of emphysema is the exposure to irritants in the air. These irritants could be tobacco smoke, air pollution, dust, or chemical fumes. You may be exposed to these at work or at home. Emphysema is rarely a genetic disease.
Emphysema Risk Factors
There are many risk factors that are associated with emphysema. This disease is typically found in smokers or those that are frequently around someone that smokes. Cigar and pipe smokers are also susceptible to this disease. The risk for emphysema increases with each year that you have smoked. Second hand smoke is also known to cause emphysema. It is best to limit or cut out the time that you are around smoke.
Most of the cases of emphysema are seen in people between the ages of 40-60, but it can occur much earlier than this too. Since symptoms come around gradually, they may be actually happening much earlier than this.
You may also be exposed to dangers chemicals and fumes in the workplace, such as if you work around cotton, wood, grain, or mining products. The risk is much greater if you work around these products daily and you also smoke. There is also a risk associated with emphysema if you are around indoor and outdoor pollutions, such as car exhaust.
In people with emphysema, they are also more likely to develop heart problems, holes in their lungs, or a collapsed lung. A collapsed lung is very uncommon, but it is life-threatening when it does occur.
There are two ways to prevent emphysema. The first is to quit smoking. You must quit smoking in an effort to gain back your lung capacity. If you do not smoke, then you will need to remove yourself from situations when secondhand smoke is in the air. If you work with chemical fumes or dust, then wear a mask at all times.
To begin diagnosis, the pulmonologist will begin with a physical exam and ask about your medical history. After this, then you may proceed to a variety of tests. A chest x-ray or a computerized tomography (CT) scan can see if you are a candidate for lung surgery, or may help to rule out other causes of the shortness of breath. A lab test, in which you will give blood from an artery in your wrist, can help see how well your lungs move oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. A lung function test will be able to see how much air your lungs can move in and out and how fast they can do this too. You may be asked to blow into a spirometer to complete a lung function test.
Emphysema and COPD do not have a cure, but your pulmonologist may recommend a few different medications. Bronchodilators are helpful in relieving symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, or any other breathing problems that are associated with tight and constricted airways. Inhaled steroids aid in reducing inflammation. If you have an infection, then you will likely be prescribed antibiotics too.
In addition to medications, your pulmonologist may recommend a few types of therapy too. Pulmonary rehabilitation teaches you breathing exercises that will help improve your ability to exercise and you will not feel as if you are no longer experiencing shortness of breath. In early cases, people diagnosed with emphysema also need to lose weight, however, in the late stages, people will need to gain weight, so nutrition therapy may also be recommend. You may also need to be administered oxygen at certain points during the day or all of the time.
In extreme cases, your pulmonologist will also recommend surgery. You can have a lung transplant if your lungs are severely damaged. Lung volume reduction surgery is a surgery in which a surgeon will remove small pieces of the damaged lung tissue. When these damaged pieces are removed, then the healthy pieces of the lungs are likely to work better.
There are also a few home remedies that may help you breathe better. Quit smoking and avoiding other respiratory irritants is essential. Do not let your breathing problems get in the way of your regular exercise, and continue to be active. When the weather is cold, protect yourself properly. You will also want to get your recommended vaccinations and take preventative steps to avoid sickness.