Treating emphysema

Emphysema is one of three conditions grouped under the more general term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The 2 other subtypes are chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive asthma.

Emphysema causes the air sacs in your lungs to deteriorate. This reduces the surface area of your lungs, which leads to progressive difficulty in breathing.

When you’re having trouble breathing, your vital organs don’t receive as much oxygen as they should. This causes tissue injury and can eventually be fatal.

There’s no direct cure for emphysema once the lung damage is done, but treatments can relieve symptoms and prevent further lung damage. People with emphysema who smoke should quit smoking immediately. After you’ve quit smoking, there are several treatments available for emphysema.

Bronchodilators are medications that relax the bronchial muscles and improve airflow. Bronchodilators are available as inhalers in both metered dose form and powder inhalers, and through nebulizer machines (they convert a liquid to aerosol).

Bronchodilators may be used for short-term 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, combine a bronchodilator with a corticosteroid.

In addition to using an inhaler, people with emphysema may be prescribed an oral steroid like prednisone. Antibiotics are also popular treatments, preventing infections that can lead to dangerous conditions like pneumonia.

Mucolytic agents are sometimes prescribed to help lessen mucus. These treatments come in the form of expectorants. Expectorants are medications that help bring mucus up from the lungs. Mucinex and Robitussin are popular over-the-counter versions.

Many people with emphysema will eventually need daily oxygen treatment. As the disease progresses, the need for oxygen often increases. Some will eventually require oxygen all the time.

Not everyone with emphysema will need 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.

Older versions of these devices initially required a power outlet to operate. Newer versions operate on battery power, making them easier to use every day.

However, some portable oxygen concentrators are not recommended for use during sleep. The device may have problems recognizing when someone sleeping is inhaling, which affects the amount of oxygen delivered.

When emphysema is advanced, your doctor may recommend lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) or lung transplant.

Also called reduction pneumoplasty, LVRS reduces lung volume to decrease symptoms. This surgery is not for everyone, so your doctor will want to consider your health and preferences.

In LVRS, a surgeon will reduce the lung volume by removing areas most affected by emphysema. You may want to consider LVRS if you have advanced emphysema that is upper lobe predominant, or you have a low exercise tolerance even with pulmonary rehabilitation and medications for COPD.

LVRS is associated with potentially serious complications. You may qualify for a procedure called bronchoscopic lung volume reduction (BLVR)Trusted Source, which uses endobronchial valves. This way, your doctor can reduce lung volume via a flexible bronchoscope and eliminate the need for surgery.

Your doctor may also recommend pulmonary rehabilitation. This may include breathing exercises that can help strengthen your lungs.

In addition to breathing exercises, you may be encouraged to speak 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 give you a better understanding of medications and available treatments.

Yoga can improve the quality of life in patients with COPD. There is some researchTrusted Source to suggest that yoga may increase a person’s lung function and exercise capacity. How long these benefits can last is unknown.

Breathing exercises appear to be safe for people with COPD. Yoga breathing, pursed lip breathing, and diaphragmatic breathing have been shown to improveTrusted Source the distance walked by patients, though this can vary from person to person with COPD.

People with COPD who practice mindfulness may see an improvement in quality of lifeTrusted Source and reduction in stress. Mind-body interventions can reduce anxiety and depression and can improve fatigue in those with COPD.

You should always talk with your doctor before you start any alternative or complementary therapies.

Unfortunately, there is currently no direct cure for emphysema once the lung damage is done. Research is ongoing to hopefully get closer to a cure, which may include stem cell research.

However, your doctor may recommend an evaluation for a single or double lung transplant, which can improve your ability to breathe and be active. Like any major operation, you should consider the risks and complications, such as organ rejection or needing to take immune-suppressing medications daily.

When it comes to medications, most treatments can only manage symptoms or decrease the frequency of COPD flares. If you smoke, quitting is the best thing 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.

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