Respiratory Medicine

Emphysema

Introduction to Emphysema

Emphysema is a long-term disease that affects the lungs. It is mostly caused by smoking and is thought to affect between 1-2 million people in the UK.

Written by Doctify Team 27/04/2020

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a long-term disease that affects the lungs. It is mostly caused by smoking and is thought to affect between 1-2 million people in the UK. The condition is a type of ‘chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),’ in which lung tissue is progressively damaged, impairing gas exchange. There is no cure for the condition and the damage is irreversible. The best way to prevent progression of the disorder is to stop smoking, in combination with certain medical treatments and lifestyle modifications. Early diagnosis of the condition is crucial in preventing progression, so if you think you are experiencing symptoms associated with emphysema, please see your respiratory doctor or GP.

What causes Emphysema?

Many of the causes of emphysema can be avoided, including smoking and inhalation of smoke from other smokers (passive smoking). Other substances linked to emphysema development include dust and certain chemicals, including cadmium, isocyanates, and coal.
A small number of those affected may also have a rare predisposition to emphysema, known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Alpha-1 antitrypsin is an enzyme made by the body that usually protects the lungs; those who are deficient of the enzyme are at a greater risk of developing emphysema.

Emphysema

What are the symptoms of Emphysema?

The first symptom of emphysema is usually breathlessness, made worse during activity. In the early stages of the disease this may be minimal, but as the condition develops breathlessness can be overwhelming. Furthermore, you may begin to wheeze and experience a cough that produces yellow-grey mucus. Those suffering from the condition are also are a greater risk of chest infections.

How is Emphysema treated?

Treatment of emphysema aims to slow progression of the disease and ameliorate some of the symptoms. If you smoke, it is important to stop immediately to prevent rapid progression to late stage disease. In addition, inhalers may be useful. These deliver drugs such as bronchodilators to your lungs, allowing them to relax. In more severe disease, antibiotics and corticosteroids may be recommended. In late stage, severe disease, oxygen therapy may be required. This involves breathing in oxygen through nasal tubes for at least 15 hours each day, to stabilise oxygen levels in your blood.

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