Emphysema is a long term degenerative disease of the lungs that causes shortness of breath. It is part of a group of diseases classified as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. It is one of the most common lung diseases along with chronic bronchitis. Emphysema is commonly diagnosed by pulmonary function tests such as spirometry or body plethysmography. X-ray can also be used to identify emphysema. Emphysema can be managed, but due to its degenerative nature is irreversible and cannot be cured.
What causes emphysema?
Most cases of emphysema are caused by tobacco smoking. The tobacco smoke contains toxins that damage the lung tissue resulting in the collapse of the alveoli, which are air sacs within the lungs. Tobacco smoke also causes irritation and inflammation of the airways, which can also make breathing difficult. The continued release of enzymes to deal with persistent inflammation damages the elasticity of the lung tissue making it harder for the lungs to expand and contract as they should.
Emphysema can also be caused by second-hand smoke, being exposed to air-pollution or breathing in other toxins or chemicals. A rare form of emphysema is caused by a genetic mutation that leads to a deficiency in Alpha 1-antitrypsin. Alpha 1-antitrypsin prevents the enzyme elastase from breaking down the connective tissue fiber elastin and a lack of Alpha 1-antitrypsin causes elastase to degrade the lung tissue, which creates holes in the lungs.
The condition of emphysema develops when the tissue necessary to support the shape and function of the lung is destroyed. The destruction of the lung tissue around the alveoli makes these sacs lose their shape and collapse when the lungs exhale. Air becomes trapped within the lungs leading to a build up of carbon dioxide within the body. The destruction of this tissue also makes it difficult for the body to absorb oxygen from the air.