Emphysema is an irreversible lung disease that affects approximately three million Americans. Emphysema destroys lung tissue, hindering the transport of oxygen between the lungs and the blood. The impairment of respiratory function by emphysema causes breathing difficulties (dyspnea), and can lead to serious secondary health complications, including heart failure.
How Emphysema Affects the Respiratory System
Emphysema destroys the alveoli: tiny air sacs in the lungs that are essential for lung function. As emphysema progresses, the alveoli walls are destroyed, and the small air sacs are replaced by larger, less elastic holes. Expelling air from these holes is difficult, as the damaged airways collapse during exhalation. Trapped, stale air accumulates in the lungs, causing the lungs to “hyper-inflate,” further reducing the supply of fresh oxygen.
Dyspnea, and Other Symptoms of Emphysema
Dyspnea, or shortness of breath, is the most common symptom of emphysema. Dyspnea may not be apparent in the early stages of emphysema because the disease progresses gradually. Dyspnea and other symptoms develop after the lung tissue has already been damaged.
Coughing is another common emphysema symptom. The cough is not usually a wet, mucus-producing cough. Wet coughs are a sign of bronchitis, a different type of lung disease. Wheezing, another common bronchitis symptom, is also absent in most cases of emphysema.
Fatigue and weight loss are common symptoms of emphysema. As the disease progresses, some people develop a barrel-shaped chest. Under normal circumstances, the chest is narrower from front to back than it is from side to side. Hyper-inflated lungs change the shape of the chest, expanding the sides of the chest.
In some patients, a bluish tinge can be seen on the fingertips, lips, skin, and tongue. This bluish tinge, called cyanosis, indicates low levels of oxygen in the blood, and requires immediate medical treatment. Emphysema patients may experience anxiety due to low oxygen levels and dyspnea. They may also experience swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet as the circulatory system becomes strained.
Emphysema Health Complications: Heart Disease and Pneumonia
As lung function deteriorates, other health complications may develop. Respiratory disease and lung infections occur with greater frequency. Other possible health complications include:
Wet Cough: Emphysema usually presents with a dry cough. A wet, mucus-producing cough may indicate pneumonia or a lung infection.
Heart Complications: Blood flow through the lungs is negatively affected by emphysema and places the heart under increased strain. In time, heart failure may develop.
Lung Cancer: While lung cancer is not an actual health complication of emphysema, most emphysema sufferers are smokers, which increases their risk of lung cancer.
Emphysema and Related Respiratory Disorders
Emphysema often coexists with chronic bronchitis. When the two types of lung disease are present, the resulting health complications are referred to as COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.