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What is the Effect of Emphysema on the Lungs?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 December 2016
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Emphysema is a chronic respiratory disease in the category of diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. The condition makes breathing difficult and prevents adequate oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. The effect of emphysema on the lungs is extremely destructive, and damage is irreversible, though symptoms and progression can be managed to some extent.

The effect of emphysema on the lungs is a gradual destruction of lung tissue, particularly in the air sacs that help the lungs expel carbon dioxide when breathing. As the sacs are damaged, the effect of emphysema increases, causing the lungs to lose elasticity and be unable to fully deflate when breathing out. This process means that on each breath, old air remains trapped in the lungs, preventing new, oxygenated air from entering and supplying the body.

Emphysema is most often caused by smoking, and the effect of emphysema on the lungs generally increases if exposure to an irritant such as smoke is continued. People diagnosed with emphysema have typically experienced symptoms due to emphysema's effects, and thus may already have severe lung damage. There are other causes of emphysema, including some protein deficiencies, exposure to heavy air pollution or industrial fumes, and problems with connective tissue disorders.

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The early symptoms that can indicate the effect of emphysema on the lungs include shortness of breath, loss of physical endurance, weakness, wheezing, or a chronic productive cough. Other symptoms include signs of poor circulation, such as a bluish tint to nails, or breathing problems that significantly increase due to colds or hay fever. People who experience these symptoms on a regular basis are usually advised to seek medical advice, particularly if they smoke or are regularly exposed to pollutant fumes.

There is no cure for emphysema, but the progression of the destructive effects of the disease can be slowed in some cases. Smokers are always advised to cease smoking immediately, while those who have developed the condition due to pollution may be encouraged to relocate or change jobs to prevent more damage. There are some drugs that can help with breathing, including bronchodilators and steroid inhalers. In some cases, a lung transplant may be the only viable option.

Other lifestyle changes that can help slow the effect of emphysema on the lungs include regular exercise, which is known to increase lung capacity. Doctors recommend seasonal vaccines against flu for those with emphysema, as getting sick can significantly worsen symptoms and lead to complications such as pneumonia and respiratory infections. Maintaining a healthy weight is also critical, as overweight or obese people have more lung strain and a greater need for oxygen.

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