COPD 101: What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is when your lung tissues gradually break down. This makes it difficult for your lungs to work properly. The result here is that it can make you feel short of breath. Here is what emphysema entails.

Healthy lungs

Inside your lungs, you have air passages. Air passes down your neck through the pharynx and larynx. In the larynx, it passes through your vocal cords. After the larynx, these airways start branching out into smaller and smaller airways. The largest of these are called bronchi. The smallest are called bronchioles.

Bronchioles likewise become smaller and smaller. The smallest bronchioles are called respiratory bronchioles. These are surrounded by grape-like clusters called alveoli. Each alveoli resembles a balloon. They are made of elastic tissue. This allows them to expand like balloons when you inhale. They recoil to their natural shape when you exhale. By returning to their natural shape, this helps to splint airways to prevent them from collapsing. This assures that the next breath comes in easy.

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These clusters of alveoli are surrounded by blood vessels called capillaries. Alveoli and capillaries allow for ventilation to occur. Ventilation is when gases are exchanged. Oxygen leaves alveoli and enters capillaries. This is how your blood becomes oxygenated. Blood then transports this oxygen to all the cells of your body At the same time, carbon dioxide leaves capillaries and enters alveoli. When you exhale, this carbon dioxide is removed from your body.1-5

Emphysema's affect on the lungs

The most likely affected areas are your alveoli. Their elastic walls become inflamed. Over time, they become stiff and lose their elasticity. When this happens, they expand when you inhale, but fail to fully recoil to their natural shape when you exhale. By this way, airway leading to damaged alveoli lose their support and collapse.

Gradually, over time, these damaged alveoli rupture. This creates pockets of air inside your lungs that no longer participate in gas exchange. These pockets (often called air spaces or bullae) may become larger and larger over time.3-9

Diagnosing emphysema

Damage caused by emphysema gradually progresses over time. As this happens, more and more air becomes trapped inside your lungs. As more air becomes trapped, this can make you feel as though you can’t catch your breath. This is usually described as shortness of breath.

Initially, this shortness of breath is mild. It’s often brushed off to being out of shape or to the aging process. It’s because of this that emphysema usually isn’t diagnosed until after the age of 40.

By definition, you can have emphysema without having COPD. This is because emphysema is defined as “enlargement of air spaces” inside your lungs. And COPD is defined as having airflow limitation. However, airflow limitation eventually develops. And it’s usually at this point where shortness of breath causes people to seek help. Because of this, emphysema is usually diagnosed right away as COPD.5,7,9

Progression can be slowed

Damage caused by emphysema is irreversible. However, actions taken today can slow the progression of this disease and relieve symptoms. The earlier you seek help the better. This is why it’s so important to recognize even mild shortness of breath as abnormal. Talk to a doctor as soon as you recognize any degree of shortness of breath. This can set you on a path to getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. This is all in an effort to help you breathe easier and live better despite having a chronic lung disease.

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