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What is Emphysema?

By J. Beam
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments

By shell4life — On May 27, 2012

@cloudel – I suppose it could be possible. After all, chronic allergies do damage to your airways, so they might weaken your lungs somewhat.

I seriously hope not, though. I also suffer from congestion, coughing, and too much mucus. I would hate to think that this could lead to something as serious as emphysema.

I've been reading about a drug that some people are calling the emphysema cure, but it sounds to me like it might be just a gimmick. It contains a ton of protein and it's supposed to make your immune system stronger, but it could be just a bunch of hype. I suppose that if I had emphysema, I would be willing to try anything, though.

By cloudel — On May 26, 2012

I am battling chronic allergies, and emphysema sounds like an extreme version of what I go through every day. I have an overproduction of mucus, and this irritates my throat and my bronchial tubes. I cough uncontrollably at times, and I cough up the phlegm.

I'm taking antihistamines, but they don't seem to be working very well. My breathing is a little shaky from all the congestion in my chest.

Are chronic allergies and emphysema linked in any way? Am I in danger of one day getting emphysema because of all the irritation that my allergies are causing on a constant basis?

By kylee07drg — On May 26, 2012

@Perdido – I know how he felt. I am in my seventies, and though I no longer smoke, I am suffering from emphysema. It sort of feels like having bronchitis all the time.

In fact, I have had bronchitis at many times in my life. The persistent cough made it really hard to breathe, and now, I have to live with this type of cough continuously. I can hear myself wheezing when I inhale and exhale, and it pains me to know that this will never go away.

I am making it my mission in what I have left of life to warn young people about the dangers of smoking. I go around to schools and speak, and everyone there can hear my cough as I struggle to get my words out. If I hold the microphone up to my chest, they can hear the rattling and wheezing.

I think that seeing living proof of what can happen if you smoke for years is doing some good. It is scaring at least a few kids straight.

By Perdido — On May 25, 2012

My grandfather smoked for decades, but he had quit smoking years before getting emphysema. It didn't matter, though. The damage to his lungs had already been done.

He switched to chewing tobacco in his sixties. I'm sure that didn't do wonderful things for his health, either.

He didn't even know he had emphysema until he was well into his seventies. He lived to be eighty-four, but the last few years were very hard for him. He would get out of breath just getting up from his chair to go to the bathroom.

By anon167716 — On Apr 13, 2011

sorry to hear that anon37781. well the main way to prevent the disease is to not smoke and nowadays it is sad that many young people are starting to smoke increasing the risk of emphysema.

By sputnik — On Oct 02, 2009

My mother had emphysema and it is very difficult condition to live with.

Any exertion makes breathing difficult, but also seemingly innocuous things, such as the smell of perfume, or the smell of frying foods can aggravate breathing.

By anon37781 — On Jul 21, 2009

emphysema is terrible. i lost a loved one from it and there needs to be something inserted in them so that they don't get it too bad that they can't die from it

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