Emphysema is one of two conditions grouped under the more general term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The other is chronic bronchitis. Emphysema causes the air sacs in your lungs to burst. This reduces the surface area of your lungs, which leads to progressive difficulty in breathing. When you are having problems with breathing, your vital organs do not receive as much oxygen as they should. This causes tissue injury and death, and is eventually fatal.
There is no cure for emphysema, but treatments are available to relieve symptoms and prevent further lung damage. People who have emphysema and smoke should quit smoking immediately. After you have quit smoking, there are several treatments available for emphysema.
Medications as inhalants
Bronchodilators are medications that relax the bronchiolar muscles and improve airflow. Bronchodilators are available as inhalers in both metered dose form and powder inhalers, and through nebulizer machines (they convert the powder to aerosol). Bronchodilators may be used for short-term use for those needing quick relief from symptoms, or for long-term daily use.
Steroids can also be used to treat emphysema. Your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids in an inhaler form. Corticosteroids relieve symptoms by reducing inflammation. Some popular inhalers, such as Advair — which brings salmeterol and fluticasone together — combine a bronchodilator with a corticosteroid.
Oral treatments for emphysema
People with emphysema may be prescribed an oral steroid like prednisone, in addition to using an inhaler. Antibiotics are also popular treatments, preventing infections that can lead to dangerous conditions like pneumonia.
Mucolytic agents are sometimes prescribed to help lessen mucous. These treatments come in the form of expectorants, medications that help bring mucus up from the lungs. Mucinex and Robitussin are popular over-the-counter versions.
Many people who have emphysema will eventually need to use an oxygen treatment every day. As the disease progresses, the need for oxygen often increases. Some will eventually require oxygen all the time.
Not everyone with emphysema requires the large mobile tank often associated with oxygen supplementation. A much lighter and more portable device called a concentrator can extract oxygen from the air and convert it for use. Older versions of these devices initially required a power outlet to operate, but newer versions operate on battery power, making them more viable for everyday use. However, the battery-operated version isn’t recommended for use during sleep, as the device may have problems recognizing when a sleeping user is inhaling.
Surgery and rehabilitation
Some people with emphysema may qualify for surgery to reduce lung volume, which helps to decrease symptoms. This surgery is generally not performed on older adults due to health risks. People who have lung damage that’s centralized on the upper lobes of both lungs are more likely to benefit from surgery.
Your doctor may recommend pulmonary rehabilitation. Breathing exercises can also help you strengthen your lungs. In addition to exercise, you may be encouraged to interact with other people who have emphysema during these sessions. This can help build confidence and increase overall well-being. A medical professional may also work with you to help improve your understanding of medications and available treatments.
Sulfur has been identified as an aid in reducing inflammation and mucus. Often sold as MSM, sulphur is also said to help increase oxygen flow. Coenzyme Q10, found in some fish and whole grains, contains antioxidant properties. No studies have conclusively linked coenzyme Q10 to successful emphysema treatment, but it’s believed to improve immunity and energy levels, both of which may help alleviate symptoms.
Herbs like ginkgo biloba, a Chinese herb widely recognized for its many health benefits, may strengthen lungs. N-Acetyl-Cysteine is commonly used to help liquefy mucus in cystic fibrosis, which may help people who are experiencing mucus-related symptoms as well. Healthcare professionals sometimes recommend grape seed extract, which is believed to protect smokers from further cell damage.
Some herbs can interfere with medications you’re taking and cause complications or make your medications less effective. You should always talk to your doctor before you start any alternative therapies.
There is no permanent cure for emphysema. Treatments can only manage symptoms or slow the prognosis of the disease. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to help manage your symptoms. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting smoking. They can provide resources that will help you quit.