Learning About Emphysema

Emphysema is a chronic lung condition where the alveoli in your lungs are slowly damaged and destroyed.  The alveoli are small air sacs in your lungs that make breathing possible.  These tiny sacs allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to be exchanged between the lungs and the bloodstream.  When these air sacs become compromised, it makes it difficult for your body to get the oxygen it needs, and makes breathing difficult.  Emphysema is part of a group of lung diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.   The most common cause of this pulmonary obstructive disease is smoking.  Although it may take years to develop, emphysema is characterized by symptoms like shortness of breath, chronic cough, wheezing, fatigue, and chest tightness.


The symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema in particular, come about as the alveoli gradually get more and more damaged, leading to the shortness of breath and wheezing.  The alveoli in the lungs are clustered with an uncanny likeness to bunches of grapes.  What happens in the case of emphysema is that the inner walls of the alveoli continue to weaken and in time rupture, or break creating one large air space in the lung rather than the small air sacs that existed before when the alveoli were intact.   When there is one large sac rather than a bunch of small ones, the surface area of the lung is reduced, reducing the amount of oxygen that can be exchanged and reach your bloodstream.  Exhaling also becomes an issue as old air becomes trapped in the lung.  This old air obstruct new, fresh, oxygen-rich air from entering and taking its place.  As such, damage continue to progress, and breathing becomes more and more difficult as time passes. 

Although treatments do exist, these cannot reverse the damage that has been done to the lungs, only slow the development of the emphysema itself.  As mentioned, symptoms may take years to present themselves and can be as simple as shortness of breath.  This will gradually worsen, and an emphysema sufferer will start to notice the effects of the disease.  This will complicate daily life and keep someone from enjoying activities that require more lung and breathe power.  Once every day activities become a burden, people start to notice there is a problem that should be evaluated.  For those with more progressive disease, emphysema will cause shortness of breath even while at rest.

When should you see a doctor?

Once you start noticing that your breathing is compromised or you are having difficulty with normal activities, this should prompt a doctor’s visit and evaluation.  If you can’t explain why you are short of breath and it has been going on for a few months and the trouble breathing is getting worse, no better – see your doctor. Many people try to blame weight or age for this change in ability to do strenuous activities, but it may be more complicated than that.  Which is why a doctor’s visit is warranted.  This is especially true if:

·         You are so short of breath climbing stairs become extremely difficult

·         Your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray – this can be an indication that not enough oxygen is getting to your body

·         You are mentally foggy and un-alert


Some common causes of emphysema to pay attention to are long-term exposure to airborne irritants and are as follows:

·         Tobacco smoke

·         Marijuana smoke

·         Air pollution

·         Manufacturing fumes

More rarely, emphysema can be caused by an inherited disease.  This disease is called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, and is a deficiency in a protein that protects the elastic structures in the lungs.