Smoking is the most common cause of a serious and sometimes deadly lung condition called emphysema. Emphysema is among several diseases that are known together as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The condition doesn’t appear suddenly, but develops slowly and in stages, usually due to years of smoking cigarettes or other types of tobacco.
Click through the slideshow to learn more about the stages of emphysema.
Early Warning Signs
One of the first symptoms of emphysema is difficulty breathing. The Cleveland Clinic notes that most people don’t notice these early signs of the condition until at least half of their lung tissue has been damaged or destroyed. After that happens, you may experience shortness of breath or the feeling that you can’t inhale enough air. In the early stages of the disease, these breathing problems may only be apparent when you’re physically active.
As emphysema progresses, you may have difficulty breathing and struggle to take in air while sitting still or lying down. Additionally, other symptoms may arise, including:
- a constant cough and wheezing
- overproduction of phlegm
Breathing during eating becomes more difficult, so you may also experience a poor appetite and weight loss.
Reasons to Seek Help
Eventually, after several months of experiencing shortness of breath, you may start to suffer from serious medical problems that interfere with your daily activities. The Mayo Clinic recommends seeking medical attention if you experience:
- difficulty talking because you are so short of breath
- a bluish or grayish tinge to your lips or fingernails
- lack of mental alertness
- a fast heartbeat
If your emphysema reaches the later stages, you may also be at risk for several other dangerous complications, such as a heart condition known as cor pumonale. Emphysema often increases pressure in the arteries connecting your lungs to your heart. This can cause an area of your heart to expand and then weaken. Nearly any chronic lung condition that causes low blood oxygen levels for a prolonged period of time can lead to this condition.
Besides heart problems, the later stages of emphysema can lead to additional complications of the lungs:
Holes in lungs. Some emphysema patients develop large holes in their lungs, called giant bullae. These holes can reach the size of half of your lung, which makes it difficult for your lung to expand. Giant bullae can also get infected and may lead to a collapsed lung.
Collapsed lung. If you have severe emphysema, your lung function is very compromised. A collapsed lung at this stage can be fatal.
Why It Happens
Emphysema causes the air sac walls (called alveoli) in your lungs to become inflamed and over-expand. When this happens, the air sacs lose their ability to expand and contract normally. Air can get trapped in these sacs, causing some to rupture. That leads to formation of one larger air space instead of many smaller ones. Since trapped air can’t be fully released, your breathing becomes more labored.
Avoiding the Stages
Smoking accounts for around 80 percent of all cases of emphysema, according to Cedars-Sinai. Smoke from cigarettes, pipes, and cigars all damage the tiny hairs in your lungs (called cilia) that keep irritating germs and substances out of your airways. Without cilia to clean out your air passages, they become inflamed and the elastic fibers in your lungs break down, causing emphysema. The best strategy against emphysema is prevention.
The Cleveland Clinic notes that nearly two million people in the United States have emphysema. Once you’ve developed the condition, you can’t reverse it. In fact, it will continue to progressively worsen. There’s one sure way to avoid developing emphysema: don’t smoke. You should also avoid breathing in secondhand smoke from others, and if you work with dust or chemical fumes, wear a mask on the job. Practice healthy habits to avoid this condition.