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Emphysema is a chronic condition affecting the lungs. Individuals with this condition gradually lose the natural elasticity of the lung's air sacs, which causes difficulty breathing and often painful or uncomfortable respiration. As the elasticity is lost, small holes begin to form in the lung tissue and the air sacs become damaged. Over time, emphysema leads to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which in turn affects the heart.
A gradual and progressive condition, emphysema stems from years of exposure to chemical pollutants, most often from cigarette smoking. In some cases, it is caused by workplace and environmental air pollutants, and in a very small percentage of people, the condition is caused by an inherited chemical imbalance in the lung tissue. This rare, inherited condition is known as early onset emphysema or AAT deficiency-related emphysema.
Symptoms of emphysema include tightness in the chest, painful or difficult breathing, shortness of breath after mild exercise or exertion, and chronic cough, all caused by the progressive destruction of lung tissue and the air sacs. Often, the condition is diagnosed in patients who have previously had chronic bronchitis, but are no longer responding to antibiotics. Emphysema makes it more difficult for the lungs to pass oxygen into the bloodstream. Over time, as the air sacs become further damaged, the person may find that simply walking a short distance causes shortness of breath.
Emphysema is an irreversible condition, but treatments exist to make living with the disease more comfortable. This includes bronchodilators, prescription drugs that relax the airway, to relieve constricted airways and breathing exercises to strengthen the lungs. In severe cases, a lung transplant may be performed.
More men than women get emphysema, but people who do are almost always smokers or those who are regularly exposed to cigarette smoke. It is estimated that cigarette smoking is the cause of nearly 80% of all lung diseases, including emphysema. Quitting smoking will help slow the progression of the disease.