What is Emphysema?

By  ,  Onlymyhealth editorial team
Jun 14, 2013

Emphysema is a condition affecting the lungs. It can be described as a respiratory disorder in which tiny air sacs called alveoli, which are found in the lungs, are stretched out of shape or ruptured due to variety of factors.

Chest X-rayA pair of healthy lungs is naturally elastic allowing for expansion and contraction as they filter out impurities that are inhaled from the environment. When the delicate air sacs or alveoli present in the lungs become damaged or destroyed, the lungs lose their natural elasticity and are unable to function normally. Emphysema is a progressive disease, which essentially means it continues to worsen over a period of time. As the condition progresses, the lungs continue to lose their ability to absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide. This is turn, naturally causes difficulties in breathing and an individual often suffers from shortness of breath. A feeling of not being able to breathe in sufficient oxygen is often reported.

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two most common forms of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and they often occur together. A person with chronic bronchitis (an inflammation and swelling of the bronchial walls) typically has a daily cough with phlegm that lasts for months at a time over several years. Both emphysema and chronic bronchitis are caused by damage to the lungs and bronchial tubes. This damage is usually permanent. When this kind of damage is caused by habitual smoking, symptoms may have a chance of improving after a smoker quits.

 Smoking is responsible for up to 90% of cases of emphysema. Exposure to secondhand smoke and airborne toxins also contribute in a substantial way to emphysema. These factors however, are much less significant when compared to those related to smoking. Smokers exposed to high levels of air pollution, including sulfur dioxide and particulates, appear to be at higher risk of developing COPD.

Statistics reveal that nearly 1% of the population in the United States develop emphysema from an inherited disease known as alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency. In this genetic condition, the body is unable to produce a protein called alpha 1-antitrypsin (AAT) in sufficient amounts. The alpha 1-antitrypsin protein aides in protecting the lungs from damage by enzymes. When levels of AAT are low, the lungs are prone to being damaged by these enzymes. In its most severe form, emphysema can develop in people in the age band of 30 to 40 years of age. Since smoking interferes with the function of AAT, people with AAT deficiency who smoke develop a more severe case of emphysema at an earlier age than those who don't smoke. Most people with AAT deficiency are Caucasians of northern European descent.

COPD is the most common cause of death from respiratory disease in the United States. Most people with emphysema are cigarette-smoking men older than the age of 40, who live in areas where there is a high rate of pollution. However, because of the dramatic increase in smoking among women over the past few decades, the rate of emphysema in women continues to escalate as well.

Read more articles on Emphysema.



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