When Does Emphysema Become COPD?

May 7th 2016

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a respiratory condition that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Both emphysema and COPD are generally caused by smoking. There are certain factors that can cause emphysema to progress into COPD and symptoms that can mark this acceleration.

The Physiology of Emphysema

Emphysema falls into the category of COPD because breathing — primarily exhalation — is obstructed. Emphysema results when the linings of the air sacs in the lungs become damaged beyond repair. This can be caused by air pollution, breathing toxic chemicals or smoking. Emphysema progresses slowly. As delicate tissue between the air sacs is destroyed, air gets trapped inside pockets in the lungs. This creates an obstruction during exhalation.

Although most emphysema cases are attributed to smoking cigarettes, it can be caused by alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. AAT is a protein in the blood that keeps white blood cells from damaging normal tissue. This condition can cause normal white blood cells to damage lung tissue continually, and the damage is intensified when smoking is involved. COPD and emphysema are both irreversible, although symptoms can be lessened through smoking cessation.

The Diagnosis of Emphysema and COPD

Symptoms of COPD occur over time and include chronic cough with mucus, shortness of breath after activity, chest pain, difficulty breathing and susceptibility to upper respiratory infections. Progression of emphysema to COPD is often the result of bacterial or viral infections such as influenza or pneumonia. Patients with emphysema function with a reduced level of airflow, which is exacerbated by secondary infections. Risk factors such as smoking or exposure to airborne toxins also increase the risk of developing COPD.

Spirometry, a clinical breathing test, measures air flow in and out of the lungs to determine the severity of the condition and diagnose COPD. Treatment of progressed COPD can include medications, a breathing apparatus and surgery, in some cases. Emphysema that has progressed to COPD can significantly shorten life expectancy and is typically a debilitating respiratory disorder.

The Role of Chronic Bronchitis on COPD

While emphysema does fall under the umbrella of COPD, the classification of COPD is often a result of the interplay between chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Bronchitis is inflammation of the lungs that results in irritation and increased production of sputum, all of which cause scar tissue to develop in the lungs. Most people with COPD are suffering from both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The coexistence of these two conditions are a primary indicator for the development of progressed COPD and aggressive medical treatment, with women being more at risk for chronic bronchitis in addition to emphysema.

Primary Treatment of COPD: Smoking Cessation

The role of smoking in developing COPD cannot be understated. As such, smoking cessation is also the primary treatment option. COPD is progressive and can be difficult to treat, but kicking the smoking habit has the best results to date on prognosis and life expectancy. Smoking cessation is especially effective if initiated immediately after the initial diagnosis of emphysema, although quitting at any time can result in an improved condition. Statistically, women are at greater risk of mortality from COPD and also smoking at higher rates than men.

Emphysema and COPD are serious conditions with life-long implications. Most treatments are decided by a team of specialists. When diagnosed with emphysema, take action to prevent progression to a more serious form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that can severely restrict mobility and quality of life. Initial steps to stop smoking cigarettes and remove yourself from airborne toxins in the home and work environment can go a long way toward management of emphysema and to prevent a rapidly worsening condition.

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