The National Emphysema Foundation reports that more than 11 million Americans suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of related lung diseases that obstruct your airflow as you breathe. (1)
Emphysema is one common form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and it impacts more than 3 million adults. However, millions more could have the disease and not even know it. In fact, the American Lung Association believes statistics are vastly underreported, and the association believes that the number of people suffering from the disease may be more than double what’s reported. (2)
If you or a loved one has emphysema or is worried about emphysema risks, knowing the facts — plus natural, effective ways to improve breathing through lifestyle, diet and more — can help you to breathe easy.
What Is Emphysema?
There are two specific forms of COPD: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. (3) Both make breathing difficult, and it’s not uncommon for someone to have both forms of COPD. While the terms are often confused together, it’s less a question of emphysema vs. COPD, but rather emphysema being a subset of COPD.
Emphysema affects the physical structure of your lungs. In your lungs are tiny air sacs called alveoli. There are an estimated 600 million such air sacs in your lungs. (4) To summarize an incredibly complex process, when you breathe in, all those air sacs are filled with oxygen-rich air.
When you have emphysema, the walls between each air sac lose their strength and elasticity due to chronic lung damage. (1) Over time, the walls themselves break down, creating fewer and fewer individual, small air sacs. (This is not to be confused with subcutaneous emphysema, which is when air gets trapped under your skin due to trauma or injury.)
Is Emphysema a Fatal Disease? What Is the Prognosis for a Person with Emphysema?
This form of COPD reduces how much oxygen you get, creating more and more difficulties breathing. And because your breath is so critical for your health and wellbeing, it’s no surprise that COPD is the No. 3 leading cause of death in the United States — and this number only continues to grow. (5)
However, an emphysema diagnosis doesn’t mean you’ll be part of those statistics. A healthy approach to symptom management can help you live a healthy, long life.
What Is Stage 4 Emphysema?
As with many diseases, emphysema can be broken into several stages of progression. Stage 1 is when the disease is very mild. Stage 4 is when it has progressed to its most severe point.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of emphysema can start off seeming small and insignificant. This is why so many people only get a diagnosis once the lung disease has progressed to a serious state. Talk to your doctor or health care professional if you or a loved one notice any changes in how you breathe.
If you notice any of the following symptoms, it could be an early warning sign of emphysema: (6)
1. Chronic Cough and/or Wheezing
If you have a cough that hasn’t gone away after eight weeks, medical professionals label it as “chronic.” (7) The cause of the cough could be something as straightforward as a minor respiratory infection or a sign of something more serious like emphysema. Emphysema-related coughs are often also wheezy, or you may experience wheezing separately.
2. Shortness of Breath
Often, people attribute shortness of breath to simply “being out of shape” or “getting too old.” In reality, if you ever feel a tightness in your chest or like you can’t breathe fast enough, and this sensation happens when you’re doing everyday activities like walking the dog or getting the mail, talk to a doctor. (8)
3. Physical Changes
Some distinct changes in your physical body could be clues. If your body is producing a lot of mucus, that could be a sign of emphysema. Your nails and lips are also vital signs. If they have a blue tint to them, it may be because you’re not getting enough oxygen (also known as cyanosis). Finally, you may be feeling chronic fatigue because your lungs aren’t working efficiently.
Causes and Risk Factors
When it comes to emphysema causes, smoking accounts for upwards of 90 percent of cases. (9) The 7,000 chemicals released by burning cigarettes weaken your lungs, destroy your lungs’ air sacs (accelerating the progress of the disease) and provoke inflammation and chronic irritation that further reduces your lung strength.
But even if you don’t smoke, you could still be exposed to risk factors and hidden causes of emphysema:
- Air pollution: Whether it’s exhaust from the cars around you on your morning commute, to dust in your office or home, long-term exposure to air pollution and lung irritants can cause all forms of COPD. (9)
- Workplace hazards: According to a report published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found that 19.2 percent of COPD cases were linked to working in factories and similar workplaces that exposed people to chemical fumes and vapors. (10, 11)
- Gender and age demographics: The older you are, the more at risk you are. An estimated 90 percent of people with emphysema are over the age of 45. (2) Gender may also play a role. While the number of women with the disease continues to rise, rates in men have gone down slightly.
You may be wondering, is emphysema reversible? If you or a loved one has emphysema, your doctor may suggest several conventional treatments to get your symptoms under control. While there is no true cure for the disease, you can find ways to successfully manage the symptoms and live a long, healthier life.
1. Drug Therapies
There are three types of drugs that your doctor may prescribe. (12) Depending on the progress of your disease, any complications you may have, and your lifestyle, he or she may suggest one or more of the following emphysema treatment medications:
- Corticosteroids: Taken either in pill form or via an inhaler, corticosteroids reduce lung inflammation and open up your airways so you can breathe easier.
- Bronchodilators: True to their name, these drugs dilate/open your airways. You typically take them via an inhaler, and they can improve your ability to exercise while also minimizing shortness of breath. Bronchodilators are some of the most common drugs given for emphysema, asthma and other cases of restricted breathing.
- Antibiotics: While antibiotics don’t affect emphysema directly, people with compromised lung health also often get lung infections. Antibiotics can help treat these infections.
2. Oxygen Therapy
Oxygen therapy is simply the medical use of giving you supplementary oxygen. Researchers have found that long-term oxygen therapy can improve both the lifespan and the quality of life of people with various respiratory diseases. (13)
As the air sacs in your lungs collapse during the progression of emphysema, the amount of oxygen you receive with each breath plummets. Supplementary oxygen can minimize the risks that come with chronically low oxygen levels and may even add years to your life. (12)
Surgery is by far the most expensive and invasive treatment for emphysema and is usually the last resort when the disease has progressed severely. (14)
The most common surgery is lung volume reduction surgery. The surgeon surgically removes damaged lung tissue. This gives the healthy portions of your lungs more room to move and breathe effectively.
In the most severe cases, you may be a candidate for a lung transplant. This is rarely offered unless your emphysema is so bad that you aren’t given very many years left to live.
Natural Ways to Help Manage Emphysema
If the idea of taking drugs long-term or undergoing an invasive surgery doesn’t sound like a happy, healthy life to you, talk to your medical professional about options for natural, non-invasive ways to manage your emphysema symptoms, plus how to improve your quality of life and enhance your breathing.
1. Quit Smoking
If you currently smoke, quit smoking. This is the No. 1 most important step to stop the lung disease from getting any worse. A combination of behavioral strategies (such as social support and accountability groups) and medications has been found to be the most effective way to stop the habit. (15)
2. Try Pulmonary Rehabilitation
As part of the National Emphysema Treatment Trial, people who underwent pulmonary rehabilitation for six to 10 weeks had significantly better results with their emphysema than those who didn’t try this form of natural treatment. (19)
In a report published in the “Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society,” researchers noted that the trials “demonstrated the effectiveness of pulmonary rehabilitation in improving function, symptoms, and health status in a large cohort of patients with advanced emphysema.”
Pulmonary rehabilitation is basically a form of physical therapy. You’ll work with a specialist who will give you a combination of educational support, psychological support and training in specialized approaches to breathing.
3. Eat an Energy-Boosting, Balanced Diet
Nutritional deficiencies are more common in people with this disease because the disease puts a bigger demand on their energy levels and their regular diet can’t meet those demands. (20) This can make the fatigue and low energy that comes with the disease even worse.
Eat a healthy diet that boosts your energy: (21)
- Focus on more whole, plant-based foods and less sugar and processed foods.
- Eat smaller meals more frequently.
- Drink more water and less caffeine and alcohol.
4. Get More Vitamin D
If you have emphysema, you may have low levels of vitamin D. In an emphysema treatment breakthrough, scientists have found a strong correlation between vitamin D deficiency and COPD, likely because this important vitamin plays a role in preventing lung health loss. (22)
Most men and women should aim to get 600 IUs of vitamin D every day. (23) Sunlight exposure is one of the best ways to boost your body’s levels of vitamin D (don’t forget to wear sunscreen). You can also find vitamin D in foods like salmon, egg yolks and some mushrooms, such as portabella mushrooms.
5. Take CoQ10
People with COPD and asthma often have low levels of coenzyme Q10, an antioxidant linked with improved lung health. (24, 25) In one study of 21 patients with COPD, taking 90 milligrams of CoQ10 for eight weeks improved lung function and exercise performance in some of the patients. (26)
If you prefer to get your nutrients from whole foods and not supplements, CoQ10-rich foods include beef, chicken, pistachio nuts and broccoli. (25)
While natural, healthy approaches to supplements, diet and lifestyle can help manage many of the symptoms of emphysema, don’t forget that this disease is serious and potentially life-threatening.
And it’s not just emphysema itself that people need to take precautions over. When your lungs are compromised, you’re at a higher risk of other respiratory issues, including pneumonia, flu and the common cold.
It’s important to work with a health care professional who can help you to find effective emphysema treatment guidelines to not only manage your disease, but to also guard against the many side effects of COPD in general.
Emphysema affects more than 3 million Americans, although this number may be very underreported. This lung disease is one of two forms of COPD. When it comes to emphysema:
- The disease is primarily caused by smoking, although air pollution, chemical fumes and other lung irritants can also increase your risks.
- It is the third leading cause of death in America.
- It causes the weakening, and then the collapse, of the 600 million air sacs in your lungs, which reduces your lungs’ ability to function.
- Common signs and symptoms include: chronic coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, blue lips, blue nail beds and chronic fatigue.
- Women, and people age 45 and older, have a higher rate of emphysema.
5 Lifestyle Approaches That May Help You to Breathe Better:
- Quitting smoking: This is the most important step. Try meditation or acupuncture to help you finally kick the habit.
- Exploring pulmonary rehabilitation: The combination of breath training, education and psychological support can improve your health and wellbeing while reducing the effects of the disease.
- Eating a healthy diet: Less sugar, more whole foods, and proper hydration can help fuel you and reduce the fatigue and nutritional deficiencies often seen in correlation with emphysema.
- Getting more vitamin D: The so-called “sunshine vitamin” protects lung health.
- Taking a CoQ10 supplement: It may improve your lung health when you have COPD, asthma and similar lung diseases.