Emphysema is a disease affecting the lungs. It is characterised by a severe shortness of breath and a persistent, non-productive cough.

Emphysema is an obstructive pulmonary disease, particularly affecting the ability of the lungs to transfer air into blood oxygen and therefore, your ability to breathe freely.

Emphysema causes stem from genetic predisposition as well as environmental factors, most commonly smoking, or living in areas where air quality is compromised.

Unfortunately, lung damage is irreversible, but with treatment the disease’s progression can be slowed. It is a chronic condition that sufferers have to learn to manage in day-to-day life.

What are its symptoms?

Shortness of breath is only one of the emphysema symptoms. Others include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing during physical activity, and in advanced stages, at rest too
  • Scant amounts of mucous produced in the throat and chest
  • A phlegmy cough and frequent chest infections such as chronic bronchitis, which is a condition closely associated with emphysema.

How is it diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose emphysema through pulmonary function testing. A blood sample is sent for lab analysis to determine blood oxygen count, and a lung capacity test is conducted which requires the patient to blow as hard as they can into a breath measurement tool.

Your doctor may require you to have X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans as these will help to confirm diagnosis by showing the level of lung functionality.

What are your treatment options?

Common emphysema treatment includes lifestyle changes known as pulmonary rehabilitation and drugs such as corticosteroids and bronchodilators. These help relieve symptoms and delay the disease’s progression, and include:

  • Programmes to quit smoking
  • Inhalers with various medication including bronchodilators, corticosteroids and antibiotics to help open up air passages and treat or prevent lung infections
  • Breathing exercises, nutritional programmes and light physical activity are all part of maintaining healthier lungs
  • Oxygen therapy is an option for those with more advanced forms of the disease
  • In some cases, doctors may recommend lung volume reduction surgery for the partial removal of damaged tissue
  • Lung transplants are becoming possible for those with advanced forms of emphysema

Can it be prevented?

There are no known emphysema cures, making it essential to take preventative precautions – most importantly, avoid smoking. Living or working in areas that have high levels of air pollution also puts you at risk of emphysema. Wearing a mask can help filter some airborne chemicals and smoke.

If you are predisposed to lower respiratory infections like bronchitis, it is important that you have an annual flu vaccination to prevent re-infection.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2015