Emphysema”                                                    www.copdsupport.ie


Emphysema is a chronic respiratory disease where there is over-inflation of the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs, causing a decrease in lung function, and often, breathlessness.


Emphysema is the most common cause of death from respiratory disease in the United States, and is the fourth most common cause of death overall. There are 1.8 million Americans with the disease, which ranks fifteenth among chronic conditions that cause limitations of activity. The disease is usually caused by smoking, but a small number of cases are caused by an inherited defect.

Normally functioning lungs are elastic, efficiently expanding and recoiling as air passes freely through the bronchus to the alveoli, where oxygen is moved into the blood and carbon dioxide is filtered out. When a person inhales cigarette smoke or certain other irritants, his or her immune system responds by releasing substances that are meant to defend the lungs against the smoke. These substances can also attack the cells of the lungs, but the body normally inhibits such action with the release of other substances. In smokers and those with the inherited defect, however, no such prevention occurs and the lung tissue is damaged in such a way that it loses its elasticity. The small passageways (bronchioles) leading to the alveoli collapse, trapping air within the alveoli. The alveoli, unable to recoil efficiently and move the air out, over expand and rupture. As the disease progresses, coughing and shortness of breath occur. In the later stages, the lungs cannot supply enough oxygen to the blood. Emphysema often occurs with other respiratory diseases, particularly chronic bronchitis. These two diseases are often referred to as one disorder called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Emphysema is most common among people aged 50 and older. Those with inherited emphysema may experience the onset as early as their thirties or forties. Men are more likely than women to develop emphysema, but female cases are increasing as the number of female smokers rises.

  Causes and symptoms

Heavy cigarette smoking causes about 80-90% of all emphysema cases. However a few cases are the result of an inherited deficiency of a substance called alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT). The number of Americans with this deficiency is relatively small, probably no greater than 70,000. Pipe, cigar, and marijuana smoking can also damage the lungs. While a person may be less likely to inhale cigar and pipe smoke, these types of smoke can also impair lung function. Marijuana smoke may be even more damaging because it is inhaled deeply and held in by the smoker.

The symptoms of emphysema develop gradually over many years. It is a common occurrence for many emphysema patients to have lost over half of their functioning lung tissue before they become aware that something is wrong. Shortness of breath, a chronic mild cough (which may be productive of large amounts of dark, thick sputum, and often dismissed as “smoker’s cough”), and sometimes weight loss are associated with emphysema. Initially, a patient may only notice shortness of breath when he or she is exercising. However, as the disease progresses, it will occur with less exertion or no exertion at all. Emphysema patients may also develop an enlarged, or “barrel,“, chest. Other symptoms may be skipped breaths, difficulty sleeping, morning headaches, increased difficulty breathing while lying down, chronic fatigue, and swelling of the feet, ankles, or legs. Those with emphysema are at risk for a variety of other complications resulting from weakened lung function, including pneumonia.


A variety of pulmonary function tests may be ordered. In the early stages of emphysema, the only result may be dysfunction of the small airways. Patients with emphysema may show an increase in the total amount of air that is in the lungs (total lung capacity), but a decrease in the amount of air that can be breathed out after taking a deep breath (vital capacity). With severe emphysema, vital capacity is substantially below normal. Spirometry, a procedure that measures air flow and lung volume, helps in the diagnosis of emphysema.

A chest x ray is often ordered to aid in the diagnosis of emphysema, though patients in the early stages of the disease may have normal findings. Abnormal findings on the chest x ray include over-inflation of the lungs and an abnormally increased chest diameter. The diaphragm may appear depressed or flattened. In addition, patients with advanced emphysema may show a smaller or vertical heart. The physician may observe blisters in the lungs and bulging of the accessory muscles of the respiratory system. Late in the disease, an EKG will show signs of right ventricular failure in the heart and increased hemoglobin due to lower levels of oxygen in the patient’s blood.


Treatment methods for emphysema do not cure or reverse the damage to the lungs. However, they may slow the progression of the disease, relieve symptoms, and help control possibly fatal complications. The first step in treatment for smokers is to quit, so as to prevent any further deterioration of breathing ability. Smoking cessation programs may be effective. Consistent encouragement along with the help of health care professionals as well as family and friends can help increase the success rate of someone attempting to quit.

If the patient and the health care team develop and maintain a complete program of respiratory care, disability can be decreased, acute episodes of illness may be prevented, and the number of hospitalizations reduced. However, only quitting smoking has been shown to slow down the progression of the disease, and among all other treatments, only oxygen therapy has shown an increase in the survival rate.

Home oxygen therapy may improve the survival times in those patients with advanced emphysema who also have low blood oxygen levels. It may improve the patient’s tolerance of exercise, as well as improve their performance in certain aspects of brain function and muscle coordination. The functioning of the heart may also improve with an increased concentration of oxygen in the blood. Oxygen may also decrease insomnia and headaches. Some patients may only receive oxygen at night, but studies have illustrated that it is most effective when administered at least 18, but preferably 24 hours per day. Portable oxygen tanks prescribed to patients carry a limited supply and must be refilled on a regular basis by a home health provider. Medicare and most insurance companies cover a large proportion of the cost of home oxygen therapy. Patients should be instructed regarding special safety issues involving the transport and presence of oxygen in the home.

A variety of medications may be used in the treatment of emphysema. Usually the patient responds best to a combination of medicines, rather than one single drug.

Bronchodilators are sometimes used to help alleviate the patient’s symptoms by relaxing and opening the airways. They can be inhaled, taken by mouth, or injected. Another category of medication often used is corticosteroids or steroids. These help to decrease the inflammation of the airway walls. They are occasionally used if bronchodilators are ineffective in preventing airway obstruction. Some patients’ lung function improves with corticosteroids, and inhaled steroids may be beneficial to patients with few side effects. A variety of antibiotics are frequently given at the first sign of a respiratory infection, such as increased amounts of sputum, or if there has been a change in the color of the sputum. Expectorants can help to loosen respiratory secretions, enabling the patient to more easily expel them from the airways.

Many of the medications prescribed involve the use of a metered dose inhaler (MDI) that may require special instruction to be used correctly. MDIs are a convenient and safe method of delivering medication to the lungs. However, if they are used incorrectly the medication will not get to the right place. Proper technique is essential for the medication to be effective.

For some patients, surgical treatment may be the best option. Lung volume reduction surgery is a surgical procedure in which the most diseased parts of the lung are removed to enable the remaining lung and breathing muscles to work more efficiently. Preliminary studies suggest improved survival rates and better functioning with the surgery. Another surgical procedure used for emphysema patients is lung transplantation. Transplantation may involve one or both lungs. However, it is a risky and expensive procedure, and donor organs may not be available.

For those patients with advanced emphysema, keeping the air passages reasonably clear of secretions can prove difficult. Some common methods for mobilizing and removing secretions include:

  • Postural drainage. This helps to remove secretions from the airways. The patient lies in a position that allows gravity to aid in draining different parts of the lung. This is often done after the patient inhales an aerosol medication. The basic position involves the patient lying on the bed with his chest and head over the side and the forearms resting on the floor.
  • Chest percussion. This technique involves lightly clapping the back and chest, and may help to loosen thick secretions.
  • Coughing and deep breathing. These techniques may aid the patient in bringing up secretions.
  • Aerosol treatments. These treatments may involve solutions of saline, often mixed with a bronchodilator, which are then inhaled as an aerosol. The aerosols thin and loosen secretions. A treatment normally takes 10 to 15 minutes, and is given three or four times a day.

Patients with COPD can learn to perform a variety of self-help measures that may help improve their symptoms and their ability to participate in everyday activities. These measures include:

  • Avoiding any exposure to dusts and fumes.
  • Avoiding air pollution, including the cigarette smoke of others.
  • Avoiding other people who have infections like the cold or flu. Get a pneumonia vaccination and a yearly flu shot.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids. This helps to loosen respiratory secretions so they can be brought up more easily through coughing.
  • Avoiding extreme temperatures of heat or cold. Also avoiding high altitudes. (Special precautions can be taken that may enable the emphysema patient to fly on a plane.)
  • Maintaining adequate nutritional intake. Normally a high protein diet taken in many small feedings is recommended.

  Alternative treatment

Many patients are interested in whether any alternative treatments for emphysema are available. Some practitioners recommend supplements of antioxidant nutrients. There have also been some studies indicating a correlation between a low Vitamin A levels and COPD, with suggestions that supplements of vitamin A might be beneficial. Aromatherapists have used essential oils like eucalyptus, lavender, pine, and rosemary to help relieve nasal congestion and make breathing easier. The herb elecampane may act as an expectorant to help patients clear mucus from the lungs. The patient should discuss these remedies with their health care practitioner prior to trying them, as some may interact with the more traditional treatments that are already being used.


Emphysema is a serious and chronic disease that cannot be reversed. If detected early, the effects and progression can be slowed, particularly if the patient stops smoking immediately. Complications of emphysema include higher risks for pneumonia and acute bronchitis. Overall, the prognosis for patients with emphysema is poor, with a survival rate for all those with COPD of four years, and even less for emphysema. However, individual cases vary and many patients can live much longer with supplemental oxygen and other treatment measures.


The best way to prevent emphysema is to avoid smoking. Even patients with inherited emphysema should avoid smoking, as it especially worsens the onset and severity. If patients quit smoking as soon as evidence of small airway obstruction begins, they can significantly improve their prognosis


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