Emphysema is a chronic (long lasting) condition in which the walls between the alveoli (air sacs) within the lung lose their ability to stretch and recoil, causing shortness of breath. Under normal conditions, air enters the nose or mouth and travels down the air tube (trachea) to the main air passages (bronchial tube). These passages allow air to go into the right and left lungs. Each bronchial tube branches into smaller passages (bronchioles) and eventually into tiny air sacs (alveoli). It is through the alveoli that oxygen enters the bloodstream when we inhale and that carbon dioxide is expelled when we exhale. In emphysema, the air sacs become weakened and can break apart. Elasticity of the lung tissue is lost, causing air to be trapped in the air sacs and decreasing the amount of oxygen that is available for the body, and also decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) expelled from the lungs. Also, it is easier for the airways to be blocked, because normal respiratory function is lost.
In advanced emphysema, the individual must work hard to expel air from the lungs. Breathing can consume up to 20% of the individuals energy while at rest, making exertion very difficult.
Emphysema develops very slowly, usually after years of cigarette smoking. As the disease becomes worse, any amount of activity may cause difficulty breathing. Shortness of breath during activity or exercise is usually the reason that prompts a person with emphysema to see a doctor.
According to the American Lung Association, over 3.1 million Americans have emphysema, of which 91% are 45 years of age or older.
Smoking is the major cause, but with ever increasing air pollution and other environmental factors that negatively affect pulmonary patients, those numbers are on the rise.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), also known as chronic obstructive lung disease, is a general term for diseases that damage the lungs and includes emphysema and bronchitis (inflammation of the lungs). It is estimated that more than 16 million Americans have some form of COPD. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S, claiming the lives of more than 120,000 Americans.
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