Emphysema is a condition in which there is over-inflation of
structures in the lungs known as alveoli or air sacs. This
over-inflation results from a breakdown of the walls of the alveoli,
which causes a decrease in respiratory function (the way the lungs
work) and often, breathlessness.
Early symptoms of emphysema include shortness of breath and cough.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis together comprise chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (COPD).
HOW SERIOUS IS EMPHYSEMA?
Emphysema is a widespread disease of the lungs. Close to 3 million
Americans have been diagnosed with emphysema.
Emphysema ranks 15th among chronic conditions that contribute to
activity limitations: almost 44 percent of individuals with emphysema
report that their daily activities have been limited by the disease.
Men tend to have higher rates of emphysema. In 2001, the emphysema
prevalence rate was 40% higher in males compared to females.
CAUSES OF EMPHYSEMA
It is known from scientific research that the normal lung has a
remarkable balance between two classes of chemicals with opposing
action. The elastic fibers in the lung allow the lungs to expand and
contract. When the chemical balance is altered, the lungs lose the
ability to protect themselves against the destruction of these elastic
fibers. This is what happens in emphysema.
There are a number of reasons this chemical imbalance occurs. Smoking
is responsible for the majority (80% - 90%) of COPD (chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease) cases, including emphysema.
In addition, it is estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 Americans living
today were born with a deficiency of a protein known as alpha
1-antitrypsin (AAT) which can lead to an inherited form of emphysema
called alpha 1-antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency-related emphysema.
HOW DOES EMPHYSEMA DEVELOP?
Emphysema begins with the destruction of air sacs (alveoli) in the
lungs where oxygen from the air is exchanged for carbon dioxide in the
blood. The walls of the air sacs are thin and fragile. Damage to the
air sacs is irreversible and results in permanent "holes" in the
tissues of the lowerlungs.
As air sacs are destroyed, the lungs are able to transfer less and
less oxygen to the bloodstream, causing shortness of breath. The lungs
also lose their elasticity, which is important to keep airways open.
The patient experiences great difficulty exhaling.
Emphysema doesn't develop suddenly, it comes on very gradually. Years
of exposure to the irritation of cigarette smoke usually precede the
development of emphysema.
A person may initially visit the doctor because he or she has begun to
feel short of breath during activity or exercise. As the disease
progresses, a brief walk can be enough to bring on difficulty in