Emphysema is damage to the air sacs in your lungs. In a healthy person, the tiny air sacs in the lungs are like balloons. As you breathe in and out, they get bigger and smaller to move air through your lungs. With emphysema, these air sacs lose their stretch. Less oxygen gets into your blood and you feel short of breath.
Emphysema is a form of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Emphysema is usually caused by smoking. But chemical fumes, dust, or air pollution also can cause it over time. People who get it in their 30s or 40s may have a disorder that runs in families, called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. But this is rare.
Emphysema gets worse over time. You cannot undo the damage to your lungs.
Over time, you may find that:
But there are things you can do to prevent more damage and feel better.
The main symptoms of emphysema are:
At times, your symptoms may suddenly flare up and get much worse. This is a called an exacerbation (say "egg-ZASS-er-BAY-shun"). When this happens, your usual symptoms quickly get worse and stay bad. This can be dangerous. You may have to go to the hospital.
Don't smoke. That is the best way to keep emphysema from getting worse. If you already smoke, it is never too late to stop. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
You can do other things to keep emphysema from getting worse:
Emphysema is treated with medicines and oxygen. You also can take steps at home to stay healthy and keep your condition from getting worse.
Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.
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Current as of: March 25, 2017
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
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