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Understanding Emphysema

Emphysema is a problematic lung condition that causes patients severe shortness of breath. In those who suffer from emphysema, the air sacs within the lungs, or alveoli, have been damaged over time. Some irritant or combination of irritants has caused the internal walls of the air sacs within the lungs to weaken and eventually rupture creating bigger air spaces rather than the multiple small spaces that the lungs are designed for. This change decreases the surface area within the lungs, and thus lowers the total amount of oxygen that is able to reach the person’s bloodstream.

When someone with emphysema exhales, the damaged alveoli aren’t able to work correctly and old air becomes trapped within the lungs, leaving too little room for fresh, oxygen-rich air to enter. Most individuals who suffer from emphysema also have chronic bronchitis, an inflammation of the bronchial tubes that carry air to the lungs. This continuing irritation leads to a persistent, recognizable cough.

Together, emphysema and chronic bronchitis make up COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The primary cause of COPD is smoking, and while treatments may slow the progression of COPD, they can never reverse the damage that has been done to the lungs.

What causes emphysema?

The primary cause of emphysema is long-term exposure to airborne irritants. These usually include one or more of the following:

  • Tobacco and/or marijuana smoke
  • Chemical fumes and dust
  • Air pollution

In rare cases, there may be an inherited deficiency of a protein that works to protect the elastic structures in the lungs. This type is known as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency emphysema.

What are the symptoms of emphysema?

Many people have emphysema for years before they begin to see any signs or symptoms. The main symptom is shortness of breath, which may start gradually and increase until it becomes a problem noticeable enough to seek a doctor’s care. Many people simply avoid the activities that cause them to feel short of breath, ignoring the problem until it begins to interfere with daily life. In time, those with emphysema will experience this shortness of breath even while they are at rest.

Severe shortness of breath is not a normal sign of aging or simply being out of shape. You should consult a doctor immediately if

  • Shortness of breath has lasted for several months or is getting worse.
  • Shortness of breath is severe enough to interfere with daily life.
  • Shortness of breath prevents climbing stairs.
  • Lips or fingernails turn gray or blue during physical exertion.
  • Mental alertness suffers or is impaired.

If someone you love has been diagnosed with emphysema, you may want to consider some of the many in-home care options offered by the helpful staff of Specialty Care Services. Contact us for more information today about our Olney senior care and services in the surrounding areas; we are available 24/7!

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