Emphysema: Symptoms, Causes and Life Expectancy

One of the many fatal diseases caused by smoking is emphysema.

Emphysema symptoms and causes

Smoking has remained the culprit of countless diseases, especially those related to the lungs. Some diseases caused by smoking are treatable, but some remain incurable until today. One of the many fatal diseases caused by smoking is emphysema. A chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), there has been no cure available for emphysema at present. More alarmingly, statistics show that more than 65 million individuals around the globe have moderate or severe COPD, with experts believing that this number will keep on rising over the next half-century worldwide.

What is Emphysema?

Basically, emphysema is the condition in which the air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, are damaged beyond repair because of becoming hyperinflated. This is a long-term, progressive, and incurable disease, which, for the most part, would make the patient feel a shortness of breath. The shortness of breath is due to the damaged alveoli which are constantly weakening and rupturing, trapping old air and not leaving enough space for new, oxygen-rich air to go into the lungs.

A healthy human lung is filled with an intricate system of airways and thousands of tiny alveoli sacs. But emphysematous lungs (lungs with emphysema) are blackened by tar, the residue left behind from the chemicals in cigarette smoke. They also have permanent large holes in them, which make them lose their elasticity. Healthy lungs allow blood vessels surrounding the alveoli to move oxygen into the blood. But due to emphysema, less oxygen enters the blood as well. The enlargement of lungs and the lack of oxygen in the blood are detrimental in the long haul and may eventually cause death. Nonetheless, although this disease is not curable, its progression can be slowed down or even stopped if one quits smoking in time.

Emphysema Causes

As mentioned, cigarette smoking is one of the major causes of emphysema. It destroys lung tissues, causing inflammation to the airways which can increase airflow obstruction. Indeed, kicking the habit of smoking can help slow down the damage it does to the lungs. There are, however, other risk factors that may not be lifestyle related as well. Relatives of people with emphysema are likely to acquire the disease themselves, as the tissue sensitivity or response to smoke or other irritants may be related to genetics. However, this needs further study as there are limited findings of the link of genetics with emphysema.

Other emphysema causes include:

  • Exposure to other airborne irritants: Marijuana smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes and dust, and second-hand smoking, act in a similar manner to cigarette smoke. The pollutants cause inflammation in the airways, leading to lung tissue destruction if one has been overexposed.
  • Old age: This is a risk factor for emphysema. Lung function normally declines with age. Therefore, it stands to reason that the older the person, the more likely they will have enough lung tissue destruction to produce emphysema.
  • Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency: This is a type of substance that combats trypsin, a harmful enzyme in the lungs. People with alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency cannot fight the destructive effects of trypsin once it is released in the lung.

Emphysema Symptoms

Emphysema may become unnoticed for numerous years, as symptoms may progress quite slowly. The two main emphysema symptoms are shortness of breath and chronic cough, occurring in the early stages of the disease.

Since emphysema usually develops slowly, one may not experience any acute episodes of shortness of breath in the beginning. But later on, shortness of breath may occur with daily activities, even in walking short distances. Notably, this may be noticed even in inactivity as the disease advances.

Chronic coughing, on the other hand, is due to the excess production of mucus. The excess mucus production is normally caused by chronic bronchitis. Most people with emphysema also have chronic bronchitis, the inflammation of the tubes that carry air to the lungs, leading to relentless coughing.

Other emphysema symptoms include:

  • Frequent lung infections: Pneumonia (inflammation of the lungs caused by viruses, bacteria or irritants) can come about when one has emphysema. The air sacs may be filled up with pus and fluid, which can cause chest pain and make breathing more difficult.
  • Fatigue: Lack of oxygen can cause a person to feel tired and fatigued.
  • Weight loss: This is common in severe cases, as the space between the lungs and the stomach is diminished due to the enlargement of the lungs. The two organs can push against each other, resulting to reduced appetite.
  • Cyanosis: This is a condition in which there is a bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes, one of the major signs that oxygen in the blood is dangerously diminished.
  • Anxiety and depression: Smoking, a major cause of emphysema, may also predispose to anxiety and depressive disorders.
  • Sleep problems: Sleep abnormalities are common in severe emphysema as breathing at night is difficult.
  • Morning headaches: This is commonly due to a lack of oxygen.

Emphysema Life Expectancy

Emphysema life expectancy hinges upon different factors linked to the overall health of the patient and how severe the disease has been when diagnosed. Note that those who have HIV or connective tissue disorders, in addition to emphysema, have a more reduced life expectancy. For non-smoking patients, their life expectancy will only be reduced for one to two years, while smoking patients will cut their lifespan by three and a half years.

As mentioned, the exact years will depend on what stage of emphysema the patient currently is. According to a study by Robert Shavelle, patients who didn’t stop smoking in stage 1 and stage 2 emphysema lose 0.3 and 2.2 years correspondingly. Those who smoke in stages 3 and 4 lose 5.8 years. Patients who stopped smoking in stages 2 and 3 lose 1.4 years, while those in stage 4 lose about 5.6 years.

What is Emphysema?

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