COPD Lexicon: Emphysema Terms To Know

Last updated: September 2020

You got me started on defining COPD-related terms in my other Lexicon articles (Basic Terms to Know & Oxygen Terms to Know). So, here are a few more. These ones are related to emphysema. These should help you better understand doctor language.

Emphysema terms to know

So, here we go…

Airways. These are the passages air travels through in your lungs.

Bronchi. Large airways.

Bronchioles. Smaller airways. These lead air to alveoli.

Alveoli. These are tiny, balloon-like structures with elastic walls. This is where gas exchange occurs.

Pulmonary Capillaries. These are the smallest blood vessels in your lungs. They are connected to alveoli to allow gas exchange to occur.

Gas exchange. It’s where alveoli and pulmonary capillaries exchange gases. Carbon dioxide leaves capillaries and enters alveoli. Oxygen leaves alveoli and enters capillaries. Carbon dioxide is exhaled into your environment. Oxygen travels through your bloodstream to tissues.

Air sacs. Another term for alveoli.

Elastic. It means that something is able to return to its original shape. Alveolar walls are elastic. They expand when you inhale as the alveoli fill with air. They naturally recoil when you exhale allowing air to leave the alveoli.

Elastin. It’s what alveolar walls are made of. It’s a protein that makes alveolar walls elastic.

Elasticity. The ability of alveolar walls to expand and then regain their natural shape.

Emphysema. It’s the result of long-term exposure to inhaled irritants. Alveoli become inflamed. Elastin is destroyed. This causes alveoli to gradually lose their elasticity. This makes it so their walls are always expanded. Air cannot leave affected alveoli. This causes air trapping.

Air trapping. It means that some air becomes trapped inside your lungs. It can occur in emphysema due to loss of lung tissue. It can occur with bronchitis due to airway obstructions. Air can get past the obstruction when you inhale. Air has a hard time getting past the obstruction when you exhale. So, some of it remains trapped inside your lungs.

Barrel chest. It occurs as emphysema progresses. More and more alveoli lose their elasticity and ability to let air out. Alveoli become fully expanded. They can stretch all the way to your chest wall. It’s when your chest appears to always be in a state of inhalation.

Bullae. An air space inside your lungs. It’s an area of your lungs where gas exchange does not occur. It occurs as alveolar walls break apart, creating tiny air spaces. As more and more alveolar walls break apart these air spaces can become quite large. This may also add to the effect of the barrel chest. It may also make it so there is less room for good alveoli to fully expand. This can make it difficult to take a full breath, causing dyspnea.

Dyspnea. The feeling you can’t catch your breath. It’s a fancy term for shortness of breath.

Bleb. Another term for Bullae.

Bullectomy. It’s the surgical removal of bullae. This creates more room for good alveoli to expand. It can make breathing easier.

Narrowed airways. As alveoli expand outward, the tissue may pull against airways. It may cause airways to become stretched out. This causes them to become narrow. This causes airflow limitation.

Airflow limitation. As airways become narrow, resistance to the flow of air increases. This, in essence, slows the flow of air. This is most likely to occur when you exhale, causing a prolonged expiration. This is a tell-tale sign of COPD.

Prolonged expiration. Airflow limitation causes you to have a long expiratory phase. It may seem as though you can’t get all your air out. You may inhale before all exhalation is complete. This may cause air trapping. It can make you feel dyspnea.

Pursed lip breathing. It’s when you press your lips together and exhale. This acts to slow your exhalation down allowing more time for air to exit your airways. It is an effective technique for reducing the feeling of dyspnea.

Hyperinflate. A state of when your lungs are overinflated. They are filled with too much air. It’s caused by loss of elastic recoil and airflow limitation. Pursed lip breathing can help reduce this. COPD medicine may also help.

Pulmonary function test (PFT). It’s a series of breathing tests. It can determine if airflow limitation is present, and how severe it is. The results can help a doctor diagnose COPD. It can also help determine disease severity. It can help determine what stage you are in.

So, these are basic emphysema terms. It’s nice to know these terms. As you can see, it kind of helps you understand this disease better. This information can help you as you discuss your disease with your doctor. As a bonus, the more you know, the better equipped you are to live better and longer with COPD.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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