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Most doctors consider smoking to be the primary cause of emphysema. The disorder can potentially be caused by many other lung irritants, but smoking and emphysema tend to go hand-in-hand in most cases. A person’s lungs are full of tiny air sacs called alveoli, and these are damaged by the presence of irritants like tobacco smoke. When the irritation causes the alveoli to become enlarged and inefficient, doctors call the condition emphysema.
It generally takes a long time for the condition to develop, and this is one of the reasons smoking and emphysema are so closely connected. Smokers typically irritate their lungs constantly for years at a time, so emphysema is often a consequence. There is no current cure for emphysema—any damage that is done to the alveoli generally can’t be undone, and the condition won’t heal by itself. In cases where smoking and emphysema are connected, some people are able to slow down or stop the progression of the disease by giving up cigarettes. They may never have the total lung functionality that they once had, but it is sometimes possible for a person’s overall breathing capacity to improve significantly, even though the alveoli aren’t actually returned to their former state.
The symptoms of emphysema can be easy to miss because it takes so many years for them to develop. These symptoms also mimic many other lung conditions, so it is easy to mistake them for something else. Some of the more common symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, a dry cough, and chronic fatigue. As the condition worsens, people may develop a blue pallor to their skin, which is caused by oxygen deprivation, and they may have episodes where they feel light-headed.
In most cases, the primary treatment for most emphysema sufferers is to quit smoking. There are also medications that improve lung functionality, and some people with severe symptoms may require oxygen therapy. For people who are able to catch emphysema early enough, it may not have an effect on their lifespan, and many people with more severe symptoms are also able to control the disease to some extent. In cases where people continue smoking even after their symptoms develop, the illness can be fatal.
The connection between smoking and emphysema is just one example of the potential dangers of tobacco. Most experts say that smoking can also lead to lung cancer and several other conditions, including heart disease. Some doctors consider cigarette smoke to be a poison that slowly damages the body, and many people have great difficulty quitting because some of the chemicals in tobacco can potentially be very addictive.