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Emphysema is a disease of the respiratory system, arising from a slow, progressive damage of the walls of air passages of the lungs. It is part of a disease entity known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

What Causes Emphysema?

Cigarette smoking is recognized as its leading cause and the risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked daily (Morse & Rosas, 2014). Long term exposure to other sources of smoke, such as pipe smoke, cigars, and second hand smoke is also associated with the development of emphysema. Furthermore occupational exposure to combustion fumes, environmental pollution, and chronic exposure to smoke from use biofuels like wood and coal, is associated with an increased risk of emphysema. Intravenous drug use is also associated with an increased risk of emphysema. In addition, in a small proportion of people with emphysema, genetic factors such as Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency implicated.

What Are The Symptoms Of Emphysema?

Emphysema is a disease that develops slowly; therefore, many people are seen in the hospital late in the course of the disease. Most patients with emphysema are in their 5th to 6th decades of life. The most common symptom is cough, associated with the production of whitish sputum, which is typically worse in the mornings. The patient also experiences difficulty in breathing, which is worsened by minimal amounts of physical activity. A whistling sound, known as wheeze may also be heard as the patient tries to breathe.

How Is Emphysema Treated?

The treatment strategy in emphysema depends on a number of factors.

  1. The extent and severity of lung damage.
  2. The age of the patient.
  3. The cause of the emphysema.
  4. Socioeconomic factors, such as job, income, family.
Smoking cessation is a key determinant of treatment success and is one of the most important determinants of quality of life improvement after diagnosis (Vassallo, 2012). 

Therefore, counselling on the benefits of cessation of smoking must be included in the treatment plan in emphysema and COPD. In some cases, in addition to counselling, nicotine replacement therapy using nicotine chewing gums, or drugs such as varenicline may be needed to help treat smoking addiction.

A variety of drugs used in the treatment of emphysema. These drugs are used in different combinations, depending on the clinical status of the patient.  Antibiotics are used to treat lung colonization with harmful bacteria. Bronchodilators are employed in the improvement of breathlessness and lung function. Corticosteroids are useful in dampening inflammation, especially during  periods when breathing difficulties develop suddenly ( exacerbations). Patients with severely impaired lung function may benefit from oxygen therapy which is self-administered continuously via special tubes placed in the nostrils. Vaccination against common lung bacterial and viral infection pathogens also reduced the frequency of exacerbations.

In very severe cases with profound reductions in lung function, surgical removal of damaged lung segments, or lung transplantation may be needed as life-saving options.

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