Emphysema is classified as a type of COPD.

Understanding the Connection Between Emphysema and COPD

A diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema is sometimes used interchangeably. But that can be confusing because not all people with COPD have emphysema.

But if you have emphysema, you also have COPD, which is why it can be misunderstood. Continue reading below to learn about emphysema and COPD, how they are related, how it is treated and how you can prevent it.

What Is Emphysema, and How Is It Related to COPD?

Emphysema is a long-term lung condition that can make it difficult to breathe. Emphysema is related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in that it is a form of COPD.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is the name given to describe a few chronic lung conditions, including bronchiectasis, chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Emphysema is classified as a type of COPD, but you can have COPD and not have emphysema. For instance, a person can have COPD and have bronchiectasis. Different forms or types of COPD may have varied physiological changes in the lungs and different symptoms.

What happens to people with emphysema is the small air sacs (alveoli) in their lungs become damaged. The damage causes the alveoli to lose its elasticity, which interferes with getting air out of the lungs. Air becomes trapped, which may lead to a buildup of carbon dioxide. Since the air sacs have trouble emptying, it is difficult to get new oxygen-rich air into the lungs properly.

What Are the Symptoms of Emphysema?

People who have emphysema may experience a variety of symptoms, which typically progress over time. The extent and severity of symptoms may depend on the stage of the disease.

Common symptoms of emphysema:

  • Breathlessness
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing
  • Excess mucus production
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Increased risk of lung infections
  • Weight loss

Risk Factors

Some of the risk factors for developing emphysema are out of a person’s control. For instance, a genetic form of emphysema that exists called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is not preventable. The disease occurs when the protein alpha-1 antitrypsin is not produced normally, which increases the risk of developing emphysema.

But other risks for emphysema are controllable. For example, according to the American Lung Association, smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of emphysema in the U.S.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are additional risk factors:

  • Being exposed to environmental irritants, such as chemicals and fumes
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Age (most people are diagnosed after the age of 40)
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Treatment Options for Emphysema and COPD

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for emphysema, but there are ways to manage it. The treatment for emphysema and COPD often depends on the stage of the disease and how severely symptoms impact daily living.

As emphysema progresses, treatments may be added to combat new or worsening symptoms. The treatments for emphysema listed below do not reverse lung damage, but they can decrease symptoms.

Respiratory Treatments

Medications are typically recommended to treat emphysema and COPD. Prescription drugs may include fast-acting bronchodilators to dilate the airways, long-acting bronchodilators to keep the airways open for several hours, and corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. Antibiotics may also be needed at times to treat an infection.

Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Stopping smoking is one of the most important things a person with emphysema can do to slow the progression of the disease. Additional healthy habits include avoiding lung irritants, such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, eating a healthy diet with lean protein, vegetables and whole grains, along with getting enough sleep.

Pursed Lip Breathing

Pursed lip breathing is a special way to breathe that may help people with emphysema manage breathlessness. To perform the technique, inhale through the nose and exhale through puckered lips for double the amount of time you inhaled. This longer exhalation promotes the removal of carbon dioxide from the lungs.

Supplemental Oxygen

Although not all people with emphysema and COPD require oxygen, it may be needed in some instances. The damage to the air sacs may lead to reduced oxygen levels in the body, which can increase fatigue. Oxygen therapy may help improve symptoms and energy.

Mucus Clearing Techniques

People with COPD, including emphysema, can develop excess thick and sticky mucus, which makes it challenging to cough up. Using a mucus clearing device is one technique to break up the mucus and cough more effectively.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation Classes

Pulmonary rehab involves a series of classes to teach people with emphysema and other lung diseases how to manage their symptoms. Various topics may be covered, including decreasing indoor pollution, maintaining adequate nutrition and identifying early infection.

Lung Surgery

In some cases, surgery to remove a portion of the damaged lung may be recommended to reduce pressure and overexpansion of the diseased lung. This may help remaining lung tissue expand and work more efficiently. Although it may help some people, not everyone is a candidate for the procedure.

Preventing Emphysema

In most instances, emphysema is preventable. According to Harvard Medical School, there are steps may help prevent emphysema:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Avoid exposure to harmful chemicals
  • Wear proper protective masks if working near hazardous fumes
  • Reduce exposure to air pollution as much a possible