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How do you get Emphysema?

Emphysema is a lung condition which causes shortness of breath. It’s a type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) which affects the air sacs in the lungs. It occurs most often in people who smoke, but it also occurs in people who have had long-term exposure to harmful fumes or dust.

NHS Digital data shows that in 2020/21, approximately 1.17 million people in England have been diagnosed with COPD, which is around 1.9% of the population. It is estimated that millions more people in the UK have COPD but are undiagnosed.

Emphysema destroys air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs, which weaken and eventually break. This reduces the surface area of the lungs and therefore the amount of oxygen that can reach the bloodstream, making it harder to breathe.

While emphysema is a condition that sadly cannot be cured or reversed, there are treatments available that aim to slow its progression and minimise symptoms. Therefore, it is best to determine whether you’re suffering from emphysema as early as possible for the best long-term outcome.

What causes emphysema?

Emphysema occurs very slowly over time, when the lungs and airways become damaged and inflamed, usually due to long-term exposure to harmful substances such as cigarette smoke. There are a few factors that can increase your risk of developing emphysema, including:

Smoking

Smoking is the main cause of COPD and emphysema and is estimated to be responsible for around 9 in every 10 cases. The harmful chemicals in smoke can damage the lining of your lungs and airways. Some research also suggests that being exposed to other people’s cigarette smoke may increase the risk as well.

Fumes and dust at work

There are certain types of substances that, if you’re exposed to in the workplace, may damage the lungs and increase your risk of COPD and emphysema. These substances include:

  • Cadmium dust and fumes

  • Grain and flour dust

  • Silica dust

  • Welding fumes

  • Isocyanates

  • Coal dust

Air pollution

Exposure to air pollution over a long period of time can affect how well the lungs work. The link between air pollution and COPD/emphysema is not conclusive at the moment, however, research suggests it could increase your risk.

Genetics

If you smoke and have a close relative or friend with COPD/emphysema, you are more likely to develop the condition, suggesting that some people’s genes may make them more susceptible to the condition. It’s estimated that around 1 in 100 people with COPD has a genetic tendency to develop the condition - this is called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. You can read more information about this on the British Lung Foundation website.

What are the symptoms of emphysema?

The symptoms can vary from person to person, and will usually get gradually worse over time, although treatment can help slow the progression. The main symptoms of emphysema/COPD include:

  • A persistent chesty cough with phlegm that doesn’t go away

  • Frequent chest infections

  • Persistent wheezing

  • Increasing breathlessness, which may only occur when exercising at first, and you may wake up in the night feeling breathless

Other, less common symptoms may include:

  • Weight loss

  • Fatigue

  • Swollen ankles

  • Chest pain and coughing up blood - although these can indicate another condition such as a chest infection or possibly lung cancer

These symptoms may also be associated with other lung or health conditions. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should book to see a GP.

Is emphysema/COPD a disability in the UK?

COPD is not currently classified as a disability in the UK, but this may change in the future.

However, if your COPD makes you unable to work, you may still be eligible for standard financial support and benefits.

To learn more about this, read our article on the topic here.

How to diagnose emphysema

You should see a GP if you have persistent symptoms of emphysema, particularly if you’re over the age of 35 and smoke or you used to smoke. You should not ignore the symptoms - if they are caused by emphysema or COPD, it’s best to start treatment as soon as possible to prevent further damage to the lungs.

Your GP will ask about your symptoms, whether you smoke or have done in the past, and will likely carry out some tests to help diagnose your condition and rule out other lung conditions, such as asthma.

They may also arrange for you to have a breathing test called spirometry, which can help show how well your lungs are working. With spirometry, you’ll be asked to breathe into a spirometer after inhaling a medicine called a bronchodilator (which helps to widen your airways). It’ll measure the volume of air you breathe out in a second, and the total amount of air you breathe out. The readings will then be compared with normal results for your age to show if your airways are obstructed.

Your GP may also arrange for you to have a chest x-ray to look for problems in the lungs that can cause similar symptoms of emphysema, such as chest infections and lung cancer. They may carry out a blood test to rule out other conditions such as anaemia or polycythemia, and a blood test can also detect if you have alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.

Further tests such as an ECG (electrocardiogram), a CT scan, echocardiogram or blood oxygen test may be carried out to confirm the diagnosis or determine the severity of your emphysema/COPD.

Treatments for emphysema

Currently, there is sadly not a cure for emphysema or COPD, however treatment can help slow the progression of the condition and help relieve symptoms. Some of the treatments include:

  • Stopping smoking - if you smoke, the first step in treating emphysema is to quit smoking. The NHS has a list of stop smoking services to help you quit.

  • Inhalers and tablets can help treat the disease, such as bronchodilators, steroids and antibiotics

  • Therapies - pulmonary rehabilitation or moderate exercise such as walking can strengthen breathing muscles and alleviate symptoms

  • Surgery - for severe cases, surgery is usually only considered if other treatments have not been effective and can include lung volume reduction surgery, which can remove a badly damaged section of the lung to make breathing more comfortable, or in rare cases, a lung transplant.

How to prevent emphysema

Emphysema is a largely preventable condition since it is mainly caused by smoking tobacco. You can significantly reduce your likelihood of developing it if you avoid smoking. If you already smoke, stopping can help prevent further damage to your lungs before it starts to cause troublesome symptoms. It’s also important to try and stay away from harmful chemicals, fumes and heavy pollution.

You should also keep healthy by eating well and getting plenty of exercise. With the aid of medications and therapies, you can live a long, healthy life with emphysema.

How a personal alarm can help someone with emphysema

If you are living with emphysema, or know someone who is, then a personal alarm could be a valuable addition in several ways. First, it can provide them with a way to call for help if they are experiencing a coughing attack or severe breathlessness. It will also give them peace of mind knowing that someone will be alerted if they suffer a fall or have another type of accident related to their condition. If someone is experiencing any symptoms which are worrying them, they simply need to press a button to summon help.

While emphysema can be a distressing condition, knowing how it presents and how it can be treated can help you to feel more in control. So, if you do have any concerns about yourself or a loved one, visit your GP for advice.

Call SureSafe's team of experts on 0800 112 3201 to find out more about how a personal alarm can help keep you safe when you or a loved one suffers from Emphysema.


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