Woke up gasping for air? Or, experiencing dyspnea?
Wheezing or whistling when you breathe, so to speak?
If your answer is a “yes”, then it could be possible that emphysema is the culprit.
What is emphysema?
Emphysema is a lung disease that usually develops from years-long smoking habits. Its main symptom is shortness of breath, which is medically known as dyspnea.
Among many intricate components in the body, there is a delicate cluster of grapes in your lungs that emphysema causes damage to in the first place.
Air sacs (alveoli) in our lungs have grape-like structures
The so-called grapes in your lungs are the air sacs (alveoli) that resemble a bunch of real grapes. The alveoli facilitate the exchange of oxygen (incoming energy) and carbon dioxide (outgoing waste) between the lungs and body tissues. When emphysema develops, the function of the alveoli weakens and its inner walls rupture.
The former prevents fresh oxygen intake by trapping old air in the alveoli, while the latter reduces the surface area of the lungs for oxygen intake, thereby causing a decrease in the amount of oxygen that reaches various parts of the body. Both would eventually result in breathlessness.
Emphysema is not a situation to be taken lightly. Belonging under an umbrella of lung diseases called COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), it could be a risk factor for lung cancer, as COPD and lung cancer are closely intertwined diseases – like Bonnie and Clyde, if you will…
Emphysema is a type of COPD
What causes emphysema?
Smoking, along with certain environmental factors, are the main causes of emphysema. Let’s read further down to learn more.
- Smoking. Cigarette smoking is the most infamous baddie that leads to emphysema. Inhaled cigarette smoke contains toxins that cause the alveoli to become less than optimal. In other words, the transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules into and out of our bloodstream would be affected, and so as our breathing.
- Second-hand smoke. One who breathes in second-hand or passive smoke exhaled by people who smoke may suffer from similar adverse health effects of first-hand smoking. Thus, they may also be at risk of developing emphysema.
- Pollutants in the air.
- Fumes from fuel and car exhaust. These pollutants can irritate and inflame the respiratory airways. Consequentially, the main symptom of emphysema – shortness of breath might occur, as well as coughing and wheezing, which are the other symptoms of emphysema.
- Cooking oil fume. Exposure to cooking oil fume could make us more susceptible to lung diseases.
- PM2.5 particles. Fine particulate matter (PM2.5), as its name suggests, are air particles small enough to get into your lungs and wreak havoc. To put it another way, they are tiny enough to enter your bloodstream via your breathing and thereafter, cause inflammation and carcinogenic mutations in lung cells.
Symptoms and complications of emphysema
As mentioned earlier, initial symptoms of emphysema may include:
- Shortness of breath or dyspnea
- Long-term cough and mucus production
Over time, people who develop emphysema may also have an increased risk of:
- Collapse and overinflation of the lungs
- Heart problems
If any of these problems arise or you would like to understand the why behind the what, consult our team of medical specialists to know more.
If I think I have it, what can be done about it?
Talk to a doctor who specialises in lung conditions, i.e., a pulmonologist, for professional consultation and advice on the next steps.
Since emphysema is a form of COPD, a chronic lung condition that can develop into lung cancer, a low-dose CT scan (LDCT) is highly recommended, especially for frequent smokers who are more likely to fall prey to lung cancer. The more regular the scan, the earlier the detection, and the easier it is to treat it.
An LDCT scan takes only a few minutes but in return, it might very well save your life.
Nonetheless, we still have to say that the best way to prevent emphysema or lung cancer is to not smoke and avoid second-hand smoke. So, the next time you are tempted to go for it, tell yourself “Tak Nak!” and flee, alright?
Having difficulties breathing lately? Let our specialists in the field hear and help you out.
Dr Goh Kee San
Consultant Internal Medicine & Respiratory Physician