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Emphysema is one of two conditions grouped under the more general term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—the other being chronic bronchitis. Emphysema sufferers experience burst air sacs in the lungs which lead to extreme difficulty breathing, which in turn reduces the amount of oxygen the body’s vital organs receive. This causes long-term damage and is eventually fatal.
While there is no cure for emphysema, treatments are available to relieve symptoms and prevent further lung damage. If you have emphysema, nothing is as urgent as quitting smoking. Following that, there are a few useful treatments available for emphysema.
Bronchodilators are medications that relax the bronchiole muscles and improve airflow. Bronchodilators are available as inhalers in both metered dose form and powder inhalers and through nebulizer machines. Bronchodilators may be used for short-term use for those needing immediate relief from symptoms, or for long-term use as maintenance medication.
Steroids can also be used to treat emphysema, prescribed as corticosteroids in an inhaler form. Corticosteroids reduce relieve symptoms by reducing inflammation. Some popular inhalers—such as Advair, which brings salmeterol and fluticasone together—combining a bronchodilator with a corticosteroid.
Emphysema patients may choose to take an oral steroid like prednisone, in addition to using an inhaler. Antibiotics are also popular treatments, preventing infections that can lead to dangerous conditions like pneumonia.
Mucokinetics are sometimes prescribed to help lessen mucous. These treatments come in the form of expectorants, medications that help bring mucus up from the lungs. Mucinex and Robitussin are popular over-the-counter versions.
For many emphysema sufferers, some form of oxygen treatment will become a way of life. As the disease progresses, the need for oxygen often increases. Some will eventually require oxygen full-time.
Not everyone with emphysema requires 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 for use. While these devices initially required a power outlet to operate, newer versions operate on battery power, making them more viable for everyday use. However, the battery-operated version isn’t recommended for use during sleep, as the device may have problems recognizing when a sleeping user is inhaling.
Some emphysema patients may qualify for surgery to reduce lung volume, which helps to decrease symptoms. This surgery is generally not performed on older patients due to health risks. Patients with damage that’s centralized on the upper lobes of both lungs are more likely to benefit from surgery.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is generally recommended for patients with emphysema. They can help strengthen their lungs and clear secretions through breathing exercises. In addition to exercise, patients may be encouraged to interact with other emphysema patients during these sessions, which can help build confidence and increase overall well-being. A medical professional may also work with the patient to help improve their understanding of medications and available treatments.
Sulphur has been identified as an aid in reduce inflammation and mucus. Often sold as MSM, sulphur is also said to help increase oxygen flow. Coenzyme Q10,found in some fishes and whole grains, contains antioxidant properties. While no studies have conclusively linked Coenzyme Q10 to successful emphysema treatment, it’s believed to improve immunity and energy levels, both of which may help alleviate symptoms.
Herbs like Ginkgo Biloba, a Chinese herb widely recognized for its many health benefits, may strengthen lungs.. N-Acetyl-Cysteine is commonly used to help liquefy mucus in cystic fibrosis, which may help emphysema patients suffering from mucus-related symptoms as well. Some health care professionals recommend grape seed extract, which is believe to protect smokers from further cell damage.
If you’ve been diagnosed with emphysema, the first line of treatment is smoking cessation. Studies have shown that almost immediately following your final cigarette, your lungs begin the recovery process. While emphysema patients will never resume full functionality, with proper treatment and overall good health, a patient can live a long life.
Written by: Stephanie Faris
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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