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Pulmonary emphysema: causes and symptoms

Emphysema is a chronic disease that causes mainly difficulty breathing due to deterioration of the alveoli, small pockets of air that make up the lungs. The flow of air in the exhalation is rich in oxygen since the damaged alveoli do not exchange gases during respiration.

In people with emphysema, the lung tissue involved in gas exchange progressively deteriorates . está incluida en un grupo de patologías denominadas enfermedad pulmonar obstructiva crónica o EPOC. This disease is included in a group of pathologies called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD.

How does emphysema evolve?

Emphysema changes the anatomy of the lung by destroying the lung tissue surrounding the smaller airways . When this tissue is damaged, the airways collapse, making it difficult for the lungs to empty and the air to be trapped in the alveoli.

Normal lung tissue is similar to a sponge. The emphysematous lung resembles an old , used sponge with large holes and very low elasticity. This disease is characterized by the destruction of this spongy tissue. In addition, it severely affects the smaller smaller blood vessels and the airways that extend throughout the lung. Therefore, not only the air flow is affected, but also the blood flow.

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What causes emphysema?


Pulmonary emphysema: causes and symptoms

Cigarette smoking is by far the behavior that most predisposes people to develop this disease , but it is also the most preventable cause. The importance of smoking as a risk factor for developing emphysema should not be understood as an exaggeration. Cigarette smoke contributes to the development of this process in two ways:

  • It destroys lung tissue , which results in obstruction of air flow and causes inflammation and irritation of the respiratory tract.
  • In addition, the smoke increases mucus secretion while decreasing the ability to eliminate these secretions .

The immune cells of the lung, whose job is to prevent and fight infections, are also affected by cigarette smoke, losing effectiveness to fight infections and / or clean the lungs of the many particles that are composed of smoke.

Deficiency of the alpha-1-antitrypsin enzyme

Alpha-1-antitrypsin is a molecule that inhibits the action of proteases in the lungs . People with deficiency of this enzyme can not fight the destructive effects of proteases. The destruction of tissue by proteases produces effects similar to those observed with smoking.

Air pollution

Pulmonary emphysema: causes and symptoms

Air pollution acts similar to cigarette smoke. The pollutants cause inflammation in the respiratory tract, which leads to the destruction of lung tissue.

Genetic and hereditary factors

Close relatives of people who have emphysema are more likely to develop the disease. However, the genetic factors linked to this pathology remain completely clear. Men are more likely to develop emphysema than women. The exact reason for this is unknown, but it is suspected that the different hormonal regulation between them has something to do.

Advanced age is another risk factor . Lung function usually decreases with age, therefore, it is logical to think that the higher the person, the greater the likelihood of developing pulmonary emphysema.

It is important to note that COPD is often not emphysema or bronchitis, but the combination of both problems.

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Symptoms and signs of emphysema

Lack of oxygen is the most common symptom. Cough , sometimes caused by excess mucus production and wheezing can also be symptoms of this disease. uede notar que su tolerancia al ejercicio disminuye con el tiempo. In addition, you may notice that your exercise tolerance decreases over time.

Emphysema usually develops slowly. You may have the disease and not have an acute episode of difficulty breathing. The slow and progressive deterioration is the reason why pulmonary emphysema can go unnoticed.

One of the hallmarks of emphysema is the so called pursed-lipbreathing . The person with emphysema struggles to exhale completely in an attempt to empty the trapped air without success. To do this, purse the lips, leaving only a small opening. Afterwards, they exhale and the lips block the flow of air, which increases the pressure in the collapsed airways. This allows the trapped air to empty when the lips are opened.

People with emphysema may develop an anatomical feature called a barrel chest , where the distance from the chest to the back, which is usually less than the distance from one side to the other, becomes more pronounced due to the air trapped behind them. obstructed airways.

When to seek medical attention?

Pulmonary emphysema: causes and symptoms

If you have trouble breathing for a longer or shorter period of time, seek medical attention . The difficulty in breathing can be a consequence of other diseases, particularly cardiac ones, so it is important not to overlook this symptom. A gradual decrease in the ability to persistent cough or wheezing can also be a reason to visit the doctor.

Many recent studies have shown that up to 25% of smokers can have COPD and not know it. Because smoking is such an important risk factor, it is recommended that you go to the doctor for help to quit smoking even if you do not have the symptoms mentioned above. The support of a doctor can make the process easier.

Any indication that the lips, tongue, fingernails or skin acquire a blue tone should alert us. This sign, called cyanosis , involves an inefficient oxygen transport, possibly related to a pulmonary condition.

Pulmonary emphysema: causes and symptoms