We take about 25,000 breaths of air into our lungs per day. The lungs get oxygen to the blood, and they remove carbon dioxide, a harmful waste product, from the body. Healthy lungs also function as a kind of natural barrier, protecting the body from harmful airborne substances.
When there’s continued exposure to cigarettes or other noxious particles, the lungs eventually lose their ability to protect the body from these harmful substances. One result can be emphysema, a lung disease that’s considered a chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or COPD.
Early signs of emphysema
The most common early signs of emphysema include
- Chest pain
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath (also called dyspnea)
- Abnormal breathing patterns
Emphysema doesn’t happen suddenly. Most people who have it notice first of all that the colds they get are worse than usual, and they have heavy coughs with those colds. The coughs may not go away, even after the cold does. They may also develop chronic bronchitis. Eventually, people notice shortness of breath. Often, they think they have asthma or heart disease.
A chronic irritation or infection
Emphysema is the result of chronic, or long-term, infection or irritation of the bronchial tubes, or bronchi. The bronchi connect the windpipe with the lungs. They look like the branches of a tree, getting smaller and smaller and ending in a cluster of tiny air spaces, or alveoli. Inhaled air enters the blood stream through the alveoli.
When cigarette smoke or other toxic air pollutants are constantly inhaled, the alveoli eventually become damaged. They may tear. They may trap air in the lungs, so that it can’t reach the blood stream. Oxygen doesn’t enter the blood as easily, and carbon dioxide, a waste product, isn’t exhaled as easily. The lungs expand because they have to work harder, but they become less efficient.
Emphysema can become so severe that eventually every step leaves you short of breath. There’s currently no known cure, but most people can dramatically slow the progression of the disease by
- Avoiding the toxins that caused it
- Working closely with their doctors and other members of their treatment team
- Setting up a healthy exercise and diet routine
- Seeing their doctor as soon as the signs of a cold or other respiratory infection appear
Additionally, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is conducting two studies on patients who have emphysema as part of COPD. One study is trying to determine whether osteopathic manipulative treatment (a full-body technique using the hands to relieve pain, restore function and promote health) will produce an “immediate positive change” in lung function and chest wall mobility. The other study is attempting to find out whether yoga practice can help people manage shortness of breath and improve physical performance, psychological well-being and health-related quality of life.
Smoking: primary cause of emphysema
Smoking is the cause of 80 to 90 percent of emphysema cases. Quitting smoking is the best way to prevent emphysema and to stop its progression, if smoking is what caused it. We all know that quitting smoking is extremely difficult. If you smoke and have tried to quit before, don’t be discouraged. Most people aren’t successful the first time, or even the second or third. You need to keep trying. The more you keep trying, the more likely you are to be successful.
Here are some suggestions the America Cancer Society offers for people who are considering quitting:
- Make a firm decision in your mind that you want to quit
- Set a quit date and decide on the way you will quit. Mark the quit date on your calendar and stick to it.
- Make a plan for dealing with withdrawal.
- Make a plan for maintaining your new, non-smoking lifestyle.
These are just outlines of the steps you can take that might help you quit. For more details about quitting, visit the
American Cancer Society’s Web site:
If you’re an older adult who thinks about quitting smoking, or know someone who is, try taking the
Smoking I.Q. quiz
on the NHLBI Web site. Some of the answers about smoking, older adults and quitting might surprise you.
Getting your doctor’s help with quitting is usually a good idea too. Studies have shown that people who do this have a higher success rate. Your doctor can explain all the different methods available to you, and help you choose one that makes the most sense for you.
The American Cancer Society; The American Lung Association; The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, The Lungs in Health and Disease, August, 1997;