Emphysema – Almost Slower Than Death Itself

More feared by cigarette smokers than lung cancer, emphysema is a little-understood affliction. It’s one of the most destructive, yet least publicized lung diseases. This lack of common knowledge may be partially due to the fact that there have not been any dramatic treatment, prevention, or care breakthroughs in man's fight against emphysema.

By the time emphysema is detected, considerable permanent lung damage has already occurred. For reasons not entirely understood, the walls of the alveoli (the lung's tiny air sacs) begin to disappear. Several sacs join together, forming larger spaces, the alveoli walls lose their flexibility and air is trapped within them. As the damage progresses, the lungs have less and less ability to transfer oxygen to the blood and remove carbon dioxide from it.

Once the disease becomes established, it cannot be reversed. Breathing becomes increasingly more difficult and the victim's physical strength ebbs away. Death from emphysema has been described as a slow drowning. Eventually exchange of air in the lungs becomes impossible and the sufferer suffocates.

There's a rare form of emphysema that's inherited. In this form of the disease persons usually become ill at an early age - in their 30's or 40's – whereas the typical victim is stricken at a much older age, sometime in the late 60's or older. In the inherited form of the disease, the effects are much more significant because it strikes at an early age and thus greatly restricts the victim's life at a time when he would normally be very active. Because it's irreversible, the outlook for emphysema victims isn't good for those afflicted at any age, but especially when it strikes the young.

Since it's sometimes possible to halt the spread of emphysema, it's vitally important to detect it early, before much damage occurs. The breathing restriction imposed by the disease will also be minimized.

Until more about preventing emphysema is understood, everyone should be alert to the symptoms - primarily excess sputum (lung fluid) and shortness of breath. It's never normal to be short of breath and to have a lot of sputum. Such problems should be reported to your physician.

And above all else, quit smoking…or don't start!

Health | Respiratory

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