About Emphysema

The word Emphysema means 'inflation'. In Emphysema, the lungs lose their elasticity and become dilated with air.

Our lungs are normally very spongy and elastic. There are about 3 million tiny structures called alveoli in each lung. Alveoli are very small air sacs that are arranged like a bunch of grapes. It is here that the transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place.

In Emphysema, the alveolar walls are destroyed. This makes the lungs stiffer and less elastic. As a result, air is unable to move out of the lungs properly and gets trapped inside the lungs. The reduced expansion of the lungs during the next breath reduces the amount of air that is inhaled. As a result, there is inadequate supply of oxygen to the body.

Emphysema falls in the broad category of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). It is an irreversible state, but the progression of the disease can often be slowed down with correct lifestyle changes and appropriate medication.

Allopathic treatments for Emphysema include bronchodilators, like Albuterol and deep acting drugs like Theophylline. However these Allopathic treatments do not cure Emphysema. They are merely a way of suppressing symptoms.

Causes of Emphysema

Emphysema occurs due to destruction of the alveolar tissue. There are many reasons for this and risk factors that are associated with it. These include:

Smoking: Cigarette smoke causes inflammation and irritation of airways and destroys alveoli. It disrupts the sweeping action of the tiny hair called cilia that help to keep the airways clean.

This results in mucus build-up, which attracts bacteria and leads to infection. The immune cells of the lungs are constantly triggered to release destructive enzymes to combat the bacterial infection. Over a period of time, these enzymes lead to loss of the proteins that help maintain the elasticity of lungs.

In healthy individuals, there is a substance in the lungs called Alpha-1-antitrypsin. This protects the lung tissues from the destructive action of Trypsin. But in certain people, there is deficiency of Alpha-1-Antitrypsin. As a result, the lung tissue is slowly destroyed. This decreases the ability of the lungs to perform properly.

Air pollution irritates the airways in a manner similar to cigarette smoke. Over a period of time, it leads to inflammation and tissue destruction.

People who have a family history of Emphysema are at a higher risk of developing it.

Men are more likely to develop Emphysema than women. The exact reason for this is unknown, but differences between male and female hormones are suspected.

Lung functioning declines with age, so older people are more prone to develop Emphysema.

People suffering from bronchial asthma or chronic bronchitis are at a higher risk of Emphysema.

Symptoms of Emphysema

The development of Emphysema is a very gradual process. A person may first observe any one of the following symptoms, as they develop slowly:

Persistent Cough - The cilia which are responsible for clearing up the airway passage are affected. As a result, there is lot of mucus in the passage, which does not get cleared up and leads to persistent cough.

Shortness of Breath - Gradual accumulation of mucus leads to blockage of the airways and further inflammation, causing breathlessness.

Purse-lip Breathing - This is a characteristic of emphysema that is assumed to be adopted as an attempt to aid exhalation against the resistance, to prevent air trapping.

Diagnosis of Emphysema

If the physician suspects Emphysema, he may first perform a complete physical examination, carefully examining the shape of the chest. People with Emphysema may develop a barrel chest (the distance from the chest to the back is reduced). After this, the physician may advise the following tests:

Chest X-Ray - This will indicate if there is any infection present in the passages.

Lung function tests - These tests measure the functional capacity of the lungs and help the doctor understand the condition of the lungs.

Blood tests - These may be done to check the white blood-cell count, which increases during an acute infection. In suspected cases, blood is also screened for genetic diseases like alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. Very often, blood is also tested for levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.


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