What is emphysema?
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.
What can you expect when you have emphysema?
Emphysema gets worse over time. You cannot undo the damage to your lungs.
Over time, you may find that:
- You get short of breath even when you do simple things like get dressed or fix a meal.
- It is hard to eat or exercise.
- You lose weight and feel weaker.
But there are things you can do to prevent more damage and feel better.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptoms of emphysema are:
- A cough that will not go away.
- Mucus that comes up when you cough.
- Shortness of breath that gets worse when you exercise.
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.
How can you keep emphysema from getting worse?
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:
- Avoid bad air. Air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust also can make emphysema worse.
- Get a flu shot every year. A shot may keep the flu from turning into something more serious, like pneumonia. A flu shot also may lower your chances of having a flare-up.
- Get a pneumococcal shot. Most people need only one shot to prevent pneumonia, but doctors sometimes recommend a second shot for some people who got their first shot before they turned 65. Talk with your doctor about whether you need a second shot.
How is emphysema treated?
Emphysema is treated with medicines and oxygen. You also can take steps at home to stay healthy and keep your condition from getting worse.
Medicines and oxygen therapy
- You may be taking medicines such as:
- Bronchodilators. These help open your airways and make breathing easier. Bronchodilators are either short-acting (work for 6 to 9 hours) or long-acting (work for 24 hours). You inhale most bronchodilators, so they start to act quickly. Always carry your quick-relief inhaler with you in case you need it while you are away from home.
- Corticosteroids. These reduce airway inflammation. They come in pill or inhaled form. You must take these medicines every day for them to work well.
- Antibiotics. These medicines are used when you have a bacterial lung infection.
- Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse call line if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
- Oxygen therapy boosts the amount of oxygen in your blood and helps you breathe easier. Use the flow rate your doctor has recommended, and do not change it without talking to your doctor first.
Other care at home
- If your doctor recommends it, get more exercise. Walking is a good choice. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk every day. Try for at least 2½ hours a week.
- Learn breathing methods—such as breathing through pursed lips—to help you become less short of breath.
- If your doctor has not set you up with a pulmonary rehabilitation program, talk to him or her about whether rehab is right for you. Rehab includes exercise programs, education about your disease and how to manage it, help with diet and other changes, and emotional support.
- Eat regular, healthy meals. Use bronchodilators about 1 hour before you eat to make it easier to eat. Eat several small meals instead of three large ones. Drink beverages at the end of the meal. Avoid foods that are hard to chew.