Emphysema

Emphysema: Overview

Emphysema is a pulmonary condition with loss of elasticity in the alveoli and the interalveolar septa – the "meat-foam" and their interleaving sheaths that you fill up when you breathe.

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Emphysema is considered to be a type of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and usually occurs alongside Chronic Bronchitis.

Transparent torso showing lungs, trachea, bronchi, bronchioles
Air that we breathe passes through increasingly narrow passages into the alveoli which exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide

Every time we breathe, air passes down our windpipe (trachea), then into smaller passages called bronchi, then into even smaller passages called bronchioles, and finally into alveoli, which are the basic units required for respiration.

The alveoli are little air sacs that are surrounded by capillaries carrying blood.  When we breathe in, the alveoli transfer oxygen (O2) from the lungs into the capillaries; when we breathe out, they transfer carbon dioxide (CO2) from the capillaries into the lungs.

Causes and Development

Close-up of alveoli connected to air passages and blood vessels
Bunches of alveoli enveloped by capillaries and connected to air passages and blood vessels

If a septum (the thin wall which separates the alveoli) becomes too stretched over time, several of the little sacs will join together, decreasing the surface area that is available for oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange.  If enough of these sacs lose their separateness, like many small soap bubbles joining to make a few larger ones, breathing gets harder because each breath accomplishes less interchange of gases, resulting in emphysema.

Caused by years of bad asthma, tobacco smoking, chemical damage, and other chronic lung disorders, it can be halted but not reversed.  The first breath you take defines forever the number of the alveolar bubbles: they cannot be regenerated if they coalesce together.

Signs, symptoms & indicators of Emphysema:

Symptoms - Environment

Difficulty breathing in cold weather

Cold, dry air can cause narrowing of the airways in some people with chronic bronchitis or emphysema, which makes breathing more difficult.

Counter-indicators
Breathing unaffected by cold weather

Cold, dry air can cause narrowing of the airways in some people with chronic bronchitis or emphysema, which makes breathing more difficult.

Symptoms - Nails

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Risk factors for Emphysema:

Lab Values - Scans

Counter-indicators
Normal chest X-ray or recently-normalized chest X-rays

A chest X-ray may show changes caused by emphysema, including significant lung enlargement, scarring and hole formation.

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Weak or unproven link: may be a sign or symptom of
Weak or unproven link:
may be a sign or symptom of
Weakly counter-indicative: may contraindicate
Weakly counter-indicative:
may contraindicate
Strong counter-indication: often decreases risk of
Strong counter-indication:
often decreases risk of