Emphysema is a disease of the lungs that greatly affects the ability to breathe. Together with chronic bronchitis, it is commonly referred to as COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Though there is no cure for emphysema, it can be treated once it develops.
Emphysema is usually present with chronic bronchitis, but it specifically refers to damage to the air sacs in the lungs. These sacs are in charge of the gas exchange that takes place in the lungs. When the sacs are damaged, the exchange is reduced, and it becomes a lot harder to breathe.
By far the main cause of emphysema and COPD in general is cigarette smoking. People who have smoked for long periods of time are most susceptible to the illness. Those who've experienced long-term exposure to chemical fumes, dust, air pollution or other lung irritants are also at risk.
The best approach to emphysema is to prevent it by quitting smoking or avoiding other lung irritants. If you do develop emphysema, the prognosis is better when it's caught in its early stages. It is a progressive lung disease, which means it gets worse over time.
Treatment options include inhaled medications such as bronchodilators to improve breathing as well as vaccines to prevent complications such as the flu. Therapies such as oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation can help people with emphysema improve their breathing. For those with severe COPD, surgery may be an option. Possible procedures include bullectomy, in which the large spaces between damaged air sacs are removed; a lung volume reduction surgery, which removes damaged tissue from the lungs; and a lung transplant.
SOURCES: American Lung Association; U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute