Emphysema is a chronic and progressive lung condition that usually causes alveoli enlargement, making it more difficult to breathe. Progressive means there is a chance for the disease to progressively worsen with age. Does this mean that it always worsens over time?
What is emphysema?
It is chronic lung disease that can cause irreversible destruction of the lungs, especially for alveoli (located at the end of bronchial tubes). The damaged alveoli can significantly impair with the lungs function, because there will be less space for gas exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Alveoli are essential part of your lung where oxygen begins entering the blood and carbon dioxide begins leaving the circulation. If they get damaged, this can make breathing more difficult and the supply of oxygen to the body will be affected.
Emphysema belongs to a group of diseases called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Even it is one of the main types of COPD.
Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of the disease. It’s associated with about 80-90 percent of deaths due to emphysema. Interestingly, many smokers don’t develop the disease. But it’s still thought that the best way to prevent the disease is not to smoke. Avoiding secondhand smoke is important, too.
Quitting is also worth a try if you’re already diagnosed with the disease. It can help prevent the disease from getting worse and preserve the lungs functions as much as possible.
In a few cases, the disease is linked to alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic abnormality. Exposure to other airborne irritants, such as manufacturing fumes and air pollution, sometimes also has a role to cause the disease.
It is not easy to catch the disease at early stages, because many times it doesn’t have early symptoms. If you have it, you may not know it for many years. On the other hand, it’s most treatable if caught early.
Shortness of breath (typically on exertion) is the most common symptom. But as the disease becomes advanced, breathlessness may also flare up even at rest. Other symptoms include persistent cough and sometimes wheezing.
If your doctors think that your symptoms are associated with COPD, there are usually several tests you need to follow.
- Physical examination, including interview to ask any respiratory symptom that you have.
- Lung function test, such as spirometry. It is used to help diagnose emphysema by measuring the capacity of your lung, as well as to determine the stage of the disease.
- Imaging tests, such as X-rays and CT-scan. These can help relieve how far changes in the lung have occurred. CT-scan is more effective than X-rays. Early changes of emphysema may show up on CT-scan.
Does emphysema always get worse?
Although it can be progressive and cause permanent damage in the lung, this doesn’t mean that it always worsens. The symptoms can come and go, chronic. This means that there is also a time for remission to occur.
Remission doesn’t mean that the disease is cured. It means that the symptoms disappear for a while. But as long as the disease is controlled as well, there should be nothing to worry – especially true if the disease has not become advanced.
The damaged alveoli due to emphysema is currently irreversible, there is still no cure. But the disease is controllable.
However, in fact again it is a progressive lung disease. This means it develops gradually and tends to get worse over time, as noted before. For example, typically it takes years for emphysema associated with smoking to destroy tiny air sacs in the lungs. Once the damage is done, it’s irreversible.
Therefore, it’s important for people with this respiratory disease to clearly understand what they should do to control and prevent it from worsening. Some effective treatments are available to avoid the complications of the disease.
Depending on the severity of the disease, appropriate treatments and lifestyle changes can help preserve the lung function and the patient should still be able to have a good or even normal quality of life. Appropriate treatment and management also have been shown to improve the symptoms and help patients stay out of hospital.
The prognosis and outlook (life expectancy) for people with emphysema can vary. Each case is also different. There is no any formula that can tell you exactly what will happen. But in general, the prognosis of the disease is dependent on the following factors: