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The role of the lungs is to provide oxygen to the body and to eliminate waste. To this end, the lungs are made up of thousands of small sacs (called alveoli) that allow maximal gas exchange with the environment. In people with emphysema or chronic bronchitis, gas exchange is difficult because of changes in the alveoli. Emphysema reduces the alveoli’s ability to stretch, eventually destroying them, while chronic bronchitis causes inflammation of the bronchi, making them narrower and filled with mucus.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are grouped under the term Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), because both conditions have similar symptoms, i.e. difficult breathing, persistent cough and excessive secretions. People often suffer from BOTH emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These conditions usually affect people 45 years and older who are long-time smokers. They develop over several years. Over time, breathing becomes more and more difficult and people have to limit their activities. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are often associated with fatigue and weight loss.
Smoking is the most frequent cause of these conditions, accounting for 80 to 85% of cases. Secondary smoke appears to be involved also. Exposure to air filled with dust or pollution may be a triggering factor. Less frequently, some people may lack a protein (called alpha-1 antitrypsin) which helps protect the lungs.
The first and most important thing you can do is of course stop smoking. This is the only way to delay disease progression. Unfortunately, changes in the lungs are irreversible and drugs can only alleviate symptoms and improve comfort. Bronchodilators open the bronchi and facilitate breathing. They are often used on a regular basis. They also help control coughing. In some cases, doctors can prescribe corticosteroids (in tablets or inhalers) to reduce inflammation in the lungs. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis increase the risk of developing pulmonary infections. Antibiotics are prescribed to treat such infections. If infections are severe, hospitalization may be required. Finally, some people may need to use oxygen.
The flu is often more frequent and severe in people with pulmonary problems. Consequently, it is important to get vaccinated every fall. Vaccination against pneumonia is also recommended. Moderate exercise can be useful. Certain exercises that help reinforce the breathing muscles can be recommended. Avoiding exposure to pollution and certain irritants, such as smog, car exhaust gas, certain perfumes, cold air, etc, is recommended. Drinking plenty of water is recommended to help liquefy the secretions and make them easier to expel.
The Lung Association