Emphysema, a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a serious respiratory condition characterised by damage to air sacs in the lung called alveoli. Those diagnosed with emphysema have difficulty breathing, which results in a compromised supply of oxygen to the body, according to MedlinePlus. Symptoms may include a chronic cough and an exacerbation of breathing difficulties upon exertion of almost any kind.
Causes of Emphysema
Emphysema can be caused by any type of irritant that is routinely breathed in and ultimately reaches the alveoli deep inside the lungs. By far the biggest cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking, although other irritants such as polluted air, motor vehicle exhaust, industrial pollutants, aerosol sprays and non-tobacco smoke can also play a role, according to Health-Cares.net.
Your life expectancy after a diagnosis of emphysema depends on a number of variables, not the least of which is the degree to which the lungs have already been damaged by the time of diagnosis. Another important variable is your willingness to alter your lifestyle to minimise the effects and progress of the disease. If you've been told you have emphysema, you cannot continue to smoke and expect the condition to do anything but worsen.
Diagnosis with Spirometer
An examination for the possibility of emphysema will include testing of your respiratory function with a spirometer. You breathe through a hose into the spirometer, and it measures "how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can blow air out of your lungs after taking a deep breath," says eMedTV.com. Based on the results of this test, the doctor can determine whether you have the disease and, if so, how far it has advanced.
In its overview of emphysema, eMedTV.com says there are four basic stages of the disease. These include an at-risk stage, which is the least worrisome and is characterised by a chronic cough and routine sputum production but a normal respiratory function as measured by the spirometer. If you are told you're at risk of emphysema, a drastic change in lifestyle can keep you from moving on to the early stages of the disease. The mild emphysema stage is marked by a chronic cough, sputum production and a somewhat limited airflow, although you may find it barely noticeable. The moderate stage of emphysema is characterised by a greater limitation on airflow and is the point at which most patients seek medical help. The final stage of the disease is severe emphysema, in which airflow is greatly impaired, putting a heavy strain on both the lungs and heart.
What to Expect
Spirometry is used to measure the advance of emphysema and can help in determining a prognosis. Medical professionals look closely at FEV1 (forced expiratory volume over one second), which is the percentage of air you can force from your lungs in the first second. In healthy individuals this reading averages between 80 and 100 per cent. An FEV1 of 35 per cent or less means that you are in the final stage of emphysema, according to NetWellness.org, which indicates that more than half of patients who've reached this stage of emphysema are unlikely to survive more than four years. Roughly 30 per cent of those with an FEV1 of 20 per cent or less will die within two years, says NetWellness.org.