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.
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.
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