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What Can I Expect With Emphysema?

Emphysema is a progressive lung disease that is literally breathtaking. It’s the result of damage to the air sacs inside your lung tissue, which makes the gas exchange that’s supposed to occur in the lungs increasingly harder to do. There are over 3 million Americans who have been diagnosed with emphysema, as well as 8 million diagnosed with another form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Left untreated, emphysema can quickly become life-threatening.

Gradual Loss of Breath: The Stages of Emphysema & Life Expectancy

The progression of emphysema is divided into four stages based, largely based on your lung capacity, as measured by how much air your lungs can expel in one second.

  • In Stage 1, symptoms may barely be felt, and lung capacity may be greater than 80% of normal.
  • Stage 2 is where most people begin considering a visit to the doctor about a persistent cough, and lung capacity has fallen to between 50-80%.
  • During Stage 3, lung capacity is down to 30-50%, and significant flare-ups of symptoms may occur bi-annually.
  • Stage 4 is marked by extremely difficult breathing and frequent hospitalizations, and is known as end-stage COPD because a flare-up of symptoms could be fatal.

Because most patients aren’t diagnosed until stage 2 or 3, the prognosis for emphysema is often poor, and the average life expectancy is about five years.

Warning Signs and Risk Factors of Emphysema

Treatment and early detection can play a big part in slowing down the progression of emphysema. That’s why it’s a good idea to watch out for the warning signs of emphysema, which include weight loss, fatigue, persistent coughing or wheezing, chest tightness, and blueness in fingernail beds or lips. Typically, the early stages of emphysema only show these symptoms while under exertion, like during a long walk.

The biggest risk factor for emphysema is a history with tobacco. Exposure to a number of air pollutants like exhaust, second-hand smoke, dust, and fumes may also increase your risk. Family history has also been proven to be a risk factor. If you have relatives who suffered from emphysema, you may be at increased risk of developing the disease, even if you don’t smoke. And as with so many disorders, age is a risk factor; most cases of emphysema showing up in person between the ages of 40 and 60.

Treatment Options for Emphysema

While there is no cure for emphysema, it can be slowed down considerably. The first step is to immediately cease all habits that may be agitating your emphysema, like smoking. Smokers who are diagnosed with emphysema can greatly exceed the 5-year average life expectancy if they quit smoking immediately.

As the disease progresses, what can’t be halted can be made more comfortable with treatment. Medications can alleviate breathing problems, therapy programs can provide new breathing techniques, oxygen tanks may be used to provide immediate relief, and even some surgical options are available to removed severely damaged tissue.

In short, emphysema can be managed. The 5-year emphysema life expectancy might seem grim at first, but with early detection, prompt treatment, and no more exposure to irritants like smoke and smoking, that number can be extended significantly. Dealing with any form of COPD can be scary, but with the right treatment, it’s possible to maximize both the quality and duration of their life. Do you have emphysema or have a loved one with the disease? How are you managing the condition?

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