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Emphysema - Causes and Symptoms

Recognizing the Symptoms of Emphysema

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Updated April 09, 2014

Emphysema - Causes and Symptoms

Illustration of Emphysema from A.D.A.M.

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a severe lung disease in which the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs become damaged. Normal, healthy lungs look like upside down branches of a tree with many thousands of these tiny air sacs at the ends of those branches. Lungs with emphysema have fewer, larger sacs.

What Causes Emphysema?

While environmental pollution can cause emphysema, cigarette smoking is by far the most common cause. The chemicals in cigarette smoke are thought to damage the delicate walls of the alveoli, ultimately breaking them down, leaving larger sacs that are less efficient at processing the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that allows us to breathe properly. These larger sacs are also weaker in structure than many smaller ones and will collapse and trap air, making it much more difficult for the lungs to properly inflate and deflate. The result is breathlessness.
 

Symptoms of Emphysema

Additionally, the following symptoms could be associated with emphysema: A person with emphysema may develop a barrel chest in which the distance from the chest to the back is more pronounced due to trapped air within the lungs.

Emphysema is slow to progress. This lung disease develops very gradually over a period of many years, and often goes unnoticed until a person begins having difficulty with breathing on mild exertion. The effects of emphysema are permanent and irreversible. However, if a person stops smoking soon enough, they may be able to arrest further damage and even improve their lung function to some extent.

Emphysema Treatments
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