health Sep 7, 2021
Only 5 minutes after heading out of Amsterdam Centraal, I passed by one of the most iconic neon signs of Unsplash.
Photo by Victor / Unsplash

The primary organs of the respiratory system in humans are a pair of spongy, air-filled lungs which contain clusters of microscopic air sacs called alveoli, where gas exchange takes place.
In the case of heavy smokers and people living or working in a polluted atmosphere, air sacs of the lungs become inflamed and the walls between them rupture, forming large, scarred sacs.
This causes lung stiffness and a reduction in the area of the lungs through which oxygen can be absorbed, resulting in shortness of breath.
In this condition, more effort is needed for the lungs to expand and it puts a strain on the heart pumping blood into the lungs.
Even the slightest exertion, such as walking across a room increases the work rate of the heart to deliver enough oxygen. In the majority of cases, the added strain leads to heart failure.

Such a progressive and incurable disease of the lungs that causes shortness of breath is called Emphysema. Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Emphysema can't be cured, but treatments can help relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.


The main symptom of emphysema are

  • shortness of breath,
  • person can't climb stairs,
  • exhaustion
  • mentally not alert,
  • lips or fingernails turn blue or gray due to lack of oxygen.
  • frequent coughing or wheezing
  • a cough that produces a lot mucus
  • a whistling or squeaky sound when breathing
  • tightness in the chest
  • some people with emphysema may get frequent respiratory infections such as colds and the flu.
  • in severe cases, emphysema can cause weight loss, weakness in lower muscles, and swelling in ankles, feet, or legs.
  • depression
  • fast heartbeat
  • weight loss


The main cause of emphysema is long-term exposure to airborne irritants, such as air pollution, tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke, chemical fumes and dust.

Rarely, it is caused by the deficiency of a protein, alpha-1-antitrypsin that protects the elastic structures in the lungs. Alpha-1-antitrypsin protein deficiency emphysema is genetic and can be inherited.

Risk factors

Smoking, age, long-term exposure to lung irritants, such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes and dusts from the environment or workplace, and exposure to indoor and outdoor pollution.


To make a diagnosis, the following test should be carried out

  • Lab tests such as blood test - Blood taken from an artery in the wrist can be tested to determine how well lungs transfer oxygen into, and remove carbon dioxide from bloodstream.
  • Imaging tests such as chest X-ray,  Computerized tomography (CT) scans combine X-ray images taken from many different directions,
  • Lung function test -- It is a noninvasive test used to measure how much air lungs can hold and how well the air flows in and out of the lungs. It can also measure how well lungs deliver oxygen to the bloodstream.
  • pulse oximetry, to measure the oxygen content of blood
  • arterial blood gas tests, to measure the amount of blood and carbon dioxide in the blood
  • electrocardiogram (ECG), to check heart function and rule out heart disease

Personal Precautions

  • Exposure to respiratory irritants such as fumes from paint and automobile exhaust, some cooking odors, certain perfumes, even burning candles and incense should be avoided.
  • Furnace and air conditioner filters have to be changed regularly to limit pollutants.
  • To increase lung capacity, regular exercise should be done.
  • Protection from cold air is required by wearing a soft scarf or a cold-air mask — available from a pharmacy to allow warm air to enter lungs.
  • Respiratory infections should be prevented by avoiding direct contact with people who have a cold or the flu.
  • Medicines, such as Bronchodilators, are to be taken which relax the muscles around the airways.
  • Since people with emphysema are at higher risk for serious problems from the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia, vaccination needs to be done
  • To prevent emphysema, smokers should give up smoking immediately and their diet has to be rich in ANTIOXIDANT nutrients that include vitamin C (found in citrus fruits and blackcurrants), vitamin E (found in whole grain cereals, wheat germ, nuts and seeds) and beta carotene (found in carrots, apricots, mangoes, spinach and broccoli).


A. Sandhya

M.Sc Zoology

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