What is emphysema?

Lyall A. Gorenstein, MD
Thoracic Surgery (Cardiothoracic Vascular)
Emphysema is a progressive destructive lung disease in which the walls between the tiny air sacs in the lungs are damaged. As a result, the lungs lose their elasticity and breathing out becomes more and more difficult. Air remains trapped in the overinflated lungs. Emphysema patients report increasing shortness of breath, especially with activity, as well as variable degrees of coughing and wheezing, and irreversible airflow obstruction. Heredity is thought to play a part in the tendency to develop emphysema, but the disease is clearly worsened by smoking, air pollution, exposure to dust and fumes and lung infections.
Emphysema affects your ability to breathe and is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. You have airways in your lungs called bronchioles and at the end of those airways are tiny air sacs called alveoli. Alveoli and the cells that support them usually hold your bronchioles open so air that can pass through and oxygen can be distributed into your bloodstream, but if you have emphysema, your alveoli get damaged and your bronchioles may collapse, making it hard to breathe. Exposure to pollutants -- usually cigarette smoke -- is the most common cause of emphysema, and chronic lower respiratory disease like COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United Sates.

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Emphysema

Emphysema is difficulty breathing due to air trapped in the lung, resulting in reduced lung capacity. Smoking is usually the cause, as it damages the linings of the air sacs in the lungs making them close. This leads to areas of t...

rapped air in your lungs. Other causes may include coal dust and other pollutants. Your lungs enlarge to compensate, but there are limits to this. Treatment may be medical and include oxygen support, medication and respiratory therapy. Of course stopping smoking is always recommended. Surgical treatment by cutting out damaged portions of the lungs and reducing lung volume is also effective.
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