Emphysema is a disease in which the lungs are increasingly losing their function due to damage of the million of ”bubbly” alveoli in which the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide takes place. Healthy lungs have elastic, spongy structure which allows them both shrinking and spreading, but their elasticity gradually decreases if the alveoli stretch, they lose their elasticity or crumble and swell. This type of damage occurs when the alveoli are continuously exposed to a pressure that is higher than normal, as is the case in patients with long-standing disease. For example, chronic bronchitis or asthma cause narrowness of the airways in the lungs, which can be overcome only by the strong straining of breath and weak elastic threads in the walls of the alveoli.
The main symptom is shortness of breath that can worsen with age. If you have emphysema, the chest will probably bulge like a barrel. If you still have wheezing in the chest, and if you cough with sputum, then these are symptoms of some other lung diseases, but not emphysema.
Emphysema is most common in people who also suffer from bronchitis or asthma. Ten times more common in men than in women, and the odds of getting emphysema are higher if you smoke or live in a polluted environment. Inherited error in the chemical structure of the lungs can create a tendency towards this disease. People whose work requires an extremely strong lung power – for example, glass blowers and trumpeters – also tend to emphysema.
An increasing shortness of breath can lead to decommissioning lungs (respiratory insufficiency). People who already have emphysema are more prone to infections in the chest. There is also a high risk of pneumothorax. Because blood can no longer flow freely through the damaged alveoli, the right heart (the side of the heart that pumps blood to the lungs) is loaded, and it leads to cardiac decompensation.
What to do?
If you suffer from shortness of breath, contact your doctor who will percute the chest and “listen” them with a stethoscope. He may ask you to blow in the so-called spirometer (measurer of the maximum speed of expiratory airflow) to determine the capacity of breathing. The doctor may request an X-ray of the chest before he puts a firm diagnosis.
Self-help: stop smoking, avoid places with polluted air and stay away from people who cough or have a cold. Engage in moderate gymnastics in the fresh and clean air.
Professional help: doctors can alleviate symptoms and delay the development of emphysema, but can’t cure it. If you have both emphysema and bronchitis, the doctor will advise you to inhale a bronchodilator which expands the airways and prevent further spread of the alveoli. This will make it easier to breathe. Since bronchitis and any pulmonary infection aggravates emphysema, you will keep the disease under control if you listen to advice from your doctor about preventing respiratory infections. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics as a protective measure, even if the infection is not apparent.