A stubborn cough that doesn’t want to go away can be concerning for anyone. But if you’re a former smoker, it can be a scary situation, and the possibility of a health condition like emphysema has likely crossed your mind.
Emphysema is a serious condition that affects millions of Americans, some of whom aren’t even aware they have the disease. So how do you know if your cough is just a stubborn cough or something more serious? We’re here to keep you informed with the common causes, symptoms, and treatments for emphysema.
What Is Emphysema?
To understand emphysema, you should first understand another health condition affecting the lungs. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is when a patient has chronic issues with his or her lungs that make breathing difficult. The two main health conditions that comprise COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Emphysema contributes to COPD by damaging lung tissue over time, including damaging and destroying the air sacs called alveoli. When a person’s alveoli become damaged or destroyed, it becomes difficult for that person to breathe in new oxygen. The less oxygen someone breathes in means a decreased amount of oxygen is getting into that person’s bloodstream. Not getting adequate oxygen into the bloodstream can result in damage throughout the body, including to vital organs.
According to the American Lung Association, the primary cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking. It’s important to note, however, that not all smokers will develop emphysema and not all cases of emphysema are caused by smoking. Some emphysema patients have never been smokers themselves but have been exposed to secondhand smoke from others and exposed to certain pollutants. Rarely, emphysema can be inherited through a disorder called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which is a known cause of liver and lung diseases.
Emphysema Life Expectancy
The life expectancy of someone with emphysema must be assessed on a case-by-case basis as the disease may be diagnosed early or in late stages. Like with other chronic diseases, the earlier emphysema is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can start, and the better the life expectancy for the patient. Additionally, emphysema may manifest differently in one person than in another. Not everyone will experience the same symptoms or the same rate of progression of the disease. Similarly, not everyone will respond to or benefit the same way from treatment. If you’ve been diagnosed with emphysema, you should speak with your physician about what treatment options will help improve your prognosis and overall quality of life.
Certain medications may be prescribed to help manage a patient’s symptoms and give the patient a better quality of life. Some COPD medications may help the patient breathe more easily, have a more active lifestyle, and experience fewer symptom flares.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is a chance for emphysema patients to take a series of classes with fellow emphysema patients where they will learn together about their shared disease and how to exercise with reduced shortness of breath. These classes help patients become more active by teaching them how to exercise their lungs and muscles. The classes also serve patients by providing emotional support in a group setting.
Since emphysema reduces the amount of oxygen getting into the body through the lungs, oxygen therapy is sometimes an option to help emphysema patients get the supplemental oxygen they need to live their daily lives.
Amino acids have long been known to benefit the body. Essential amino acids are the foundation the body needs to build protein, form muscles and tissue, and produce chemicals that are essential for the body to function properly and maintain health. Research has shown that they may also help COPD patients improve their quality of life. A study published by the Monaldi Archives for Chest Disease showed that oral supplements of essential amino acids improved the quality of life for COPD patients, including their daily activities, nutrition, cognitive state, and muscle strength. The study did not name any one amino acid in particular, and it is best to take a balanced mixture of all essential amino acids to make sure that the blood concentration of amino acids is optimal. It’s also a good idea to discuss any new supplements or at-home treatments with your physician before starting them, especially if an underlying condition such as emphysema is present.
While smokers and former smokers are at risk for emphysema and other lung-related health issues, smoking is not the only risk factor for emphysema. With secondhand smoke, air pollutants, and environmental factors, just about everyone could be considered at risk. It’s always best to be upfront with your physician about your history with smoking of any kind and any known exposure to chemicals, fumes, or air pollutants. The more informed your doctor is about your health history, the more of a head’s up he or she will have when it comes to looking into symptoms such as a persistent cough or shortness of breath. Emphysema may sound scary, but there are treatment options available to help improve and maintain quality of life post-diagnosis.