Text for the Emphysema Handout 





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Lung Anatomy

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(This file presently fits on the front side of the lung anatomy sheet. If you need room simply expand to a second page and print that on the back side.)

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a degenerative disease that usually develops after many years of assault on lung tissues from cigarette smoke or other toxins that pollute the air. These toxins destroy the small air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, that stretch as they transport oxygen from the air to the blood and then shrink as they force out carbon dioxide. As a result, the lungs lose their elasticity, and exhaling becomes difficult as the damaged lungs trap air and cannot effectively exchange it with fresh air. As the damage progresses, the effort needed to breathe increases and, ultimately, each breath becomes labored.

Emphysema is one of a group of lung diseases referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that can interfere with normal breathing. Other diseases that come under COPD include asthma and chronic bronchitis. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), nearly 16 million Americans are estimated to suffer from some form of COPD, and COPD is the fourth-ranking cause of death just behind heart ailments, cancers, and stroke.

Causes of Emphysema

ALA estimates that 2 million Americans had emphysema in 1998, and cigarette smoking was the primary cause. Exposure to air pollution and irritating fumes and dusts on the job are also thought to be contributing factors of emphysema.

Symptoms and Signs of Emphysema

The predominant symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath or the feeling of not being able to get enough air. A person may initially visit the doctor because he or she has begun to feel short of breath during activity, but as the disease progresses, this symptom may be present all the time, even while sitting quietly. Coughing, wheezing, and chronic mucus production are other common symptoms.

A diagnosis, however, cannot be based on these symptoms alone. A careful history, focusing on the number and duration of these symptoms, as well as smoking and occupational histories, is basic to diagnosing the disease.


(The source of the above content is a public domain article by Carol Lewis, a staff writer for FDA Consumer. The full article can be found at www.fda.gov/fdac/features/1999/299_emph.html.)