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What is emphysema?

Emphysema is a long-term lung disease. Emphysema is part of a group of lung diseases called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Emphysema damages the alveoli (air sacs) in your lungs. This makes it hard for your lungs to send oxygen to the rest of your body.

What increases my risk for emphysema?

You are at higher risk of emphysema if you have had other lung conditions or heart problems. Your risk also increases if you have exposure to the following:

  • Tobacco or cannabis smoke, including secondhand smoke
  • Dust, chemicals, or smoke used in the workplace
  • Air pollution

What are the signs and symptoms of emphysema?

Your signs and symptoms may develop over time. You may not notice them until they start to interfere with your daily activities.

  • Shortness of breath that gets worse with activity, such as climbing stairs
  • A bluish tint to your skin, lips, or nails
  • Weight loss
  • Barrel chest (rounded, bulging chest)
  • You feel better if you breathe through pursed lips

How is emphysema diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He will ask if you smoke or are exposed to smoke, air pollution, dust, or chemicals.

  • Blood tests are done to measure the amount of oxygen, acids, and carbon dioxide your blood contains. They will also show if you have an infection.
  • A chest x-ray is a picture of your lungs and heart. Healthcare providers use the x-ray to look for damage to your lungs and heart.
  • Pulmonary function tests (PFTs) are a group of tests that measure how well your lungs take in and release oxygen.

How is emphysema treated?

The most important thing you can do to treat your emphysema is to stop smoking.

  • Medicines to open your airways, decrease swelling and inflammation in your lungs, or treat an infection may be given. You may need 2 or more medicines. A short-acting medicine relieves symptoms quickly. Long-acting medicines will control or prevent symptoms. Ask your healthcare provider how to use your medicines safely.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation is a program to help you manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life. It may include nutritional counseling and exercise, such as walking, to strengthen your lungs.
  • Oxygen may help you breathe easier and feel more alert if you have severe COPD.
  • Surgery is sometimes done if all other treatments have failed. A lung reduction is surgery to remove part of your damaged lung. A lung transplant is the replacement of your lung with a donor lung. Ask your healthcare provider for more information about surgery for emphysema.

What is an exacerbation of emphysema?

An exacerbation is when your symptoms suddenly get worse. You may have a harder time breathing, your cough may get worse, and you may cough up more sputum. You may have a fever, an increased heart rate, or feel sleepy. An exacerbation may be caused by a lung infection, air pollution, or other lung irritants. Sometimes the cause of an exacerbation is unknown. Your healthcare provider may change your treatment to help relieve exacerbations.

How can I help manage my emphysema and prevent an exacerbation?

  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause lung damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Avoid irritants. Wear protective gear if your workplace has dust or chemicals that bother you. Stay inside when air quality is bad.
  • Seek treatment early when your symptoms get worse. This may help you recover faster. Know what to do in case of an exacerbation.
  • Exercise daily. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best exercise plan for you. Exercise can help decrease breathing problems and improve your health.
  • Use pursed-lip breathing. Pursed-lip breathing can be used any time you feel short of breath. It can be especially helpful before you start an activity.
    • Count to 2 while you take a deep breath in through your nose.
    • Slowly breathe out through your mouth with your lips slightly puckered. You should make a quiet hissing sound as you breathe out.
    • Repeat this exercise 4 or 5 times a day Once you are used to doing pursed-lip breathing, you can use it any time you need more air.
    Breathe in Breathe out

  • Use sleep positions that help you breathe better. Sleep with your upper body raised if you have trouble breathing when you lie down. Use foam wedges or elevate the head of your bed. Use a device that will tilt your whole body, or bend your body at the waist. The device should not bend your body at the upper back or neck. You may sleep better in a recliner.
  • Get the flu vaccine. Ask your healthcare provider about the flu and pneumonia vaccines. All adults should get the flu (influenza) vaccine every year as soon as it becomes available. The pneumonia vaccine is given to adults aged 65 or older to prevent pneumococcal disease, such as pneumonia. Adults aged 19 to 64 years who are at high risk for pneumococcal disease also should get the pneumococcal vaccine. It may need to be repeated 1 or 5 years later.

When should I call 911?

  • You have pain, pressure, or fullness in your chest that lasts more than a few minutes or returns.
  • You have pain or discomfort in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have shortness of breath that is so severe you cannot talk.
  • You have a sudden cold sweat.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You are confused, dizzy, or feel like you may pass out.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have trouble doing your usual activities because it is hard to breathe.
  • You need to use your inhalers or take breathing treatments more often than usual.
  • You cough up more sputum than is normal for you.
  • You wheeze more than is normal for you.
  • Your legs or ankles are swollen.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2016 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.