What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a long-term, progressive disease of the lungs that primarily causes shortness of breath. In people with emphysema the lung tissues necessary to support the physical shape and function of the lung are damaged. It is one of the diseases under the umbrella term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD.

Whilst previously categorised as a separate illness, Emphysema is now considered as part of the COPD family, and is only a description of lung changes rather than a disease itself.

Emphysema is called an obstructive lung disease because the damage to the lung tissue around the small airways called bronchioles, makes these airways unable to hold their shape properly when you exhale. This prevents them from transferring oxygen into the blood and taking carbon dioxide out as effectively as is necessary.

What are the symptoms?

It is possible to have emphysema for many years without realising. The main symptom is shortness of breath, which usually begins gradually, but eventually it will happen when you’re at rest. If you’ve had unexplained shortness of breath for several months, you should contact your GP.

How can it be treated?

Emphysema can’t be cured, but you can relieve the symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease. Possible treatments include:

  • An inhaler to relieve coughing and shortness of breath
  • Steriod inhalers
  • Antibiotics

On a longer-term basis there are a number of therapies that have shown to be effective. These include pulmonary rehabilitation programmes to teach breathing techniques, nutrition therapy or supplemental oxygen.

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