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Condition Info > E > Emphysema
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(Lung Disease)

In this condition factsheet:

Diagnosing Emphysema

A doctor who suspects emphysema will likely want to know your history and will also perform lung function tests. The tests may include:

  • spirometry: The forced expiratory volume exhaled after one second (FEV1) test measures the amount of air you can exhale in one second. The forced vital capacity (FVC) test measures the total amount of air that the lungs can expel. These are the most common measures of lung function.
  • pulmonary function tests: These include spirometry, but also measurements of lung size, oxygenation, and gas diffusion testing.
  • chest X-ray or high-resolution CAT scan: A scan is often needed to eliminate the possibility of other medical conditions, such as lung fibrosis or other lung diseases.
  • oximetry: Measurement of oxygen in the blood is tested by a small device that clips on the finger, toe, or ear.
  • arterial blood gases: Blood tests provide relevant information on the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream.

Treating and Preventing Emphysema

The first treatment for emphysema is to stop smoking. Your lungs won't repair themselves, but at least further damage can be slowed. There's still no way to repair emphysematous lung tissue in humans, although researchers are studying the use of retinoic acid (a vitamin A derivative) for this purpose.

Treatments include:

  • Oxygen therapy, which is used to increase the percentage of oxygen that the body receives on each breath. Machines that concentrate oxygen may be used in the home.
  • Bronchodilators such as beta-agonists and anticholinergic medications, which help to relax and open the airways.
  • Corticosteroids that reduce inflammation may be used, and these may prevent flare-ups that require hospitalization.
  • Antibiotics when there is evidence of infection.
  • Exercise can help strengthen leg muscles so that less demand is placed on the lungs with activity.
  • Lung surgery,or a lung transplant, can be lifesaving in the small number of people who are candidates for it. In a newer type of surgery called lung volume reduction, the most diseased part of the lung (20% to 30%) is removed. This allows the remaining lung and muscles to work better, improving breathing. Research is ongoing to determine if the same benefit can be achieved by removing the emphysematous lung tissue non-surgically (i.e., by using valves or glue).
  • Surgery for pneumothorax is done by permanently joining the separated portion of lung wall and chest wall. An irritant such as talc is blown into the gap, forming scar tissue that binds the two surfaces.
  • Purified human alpha-1-antitrypsin for treatment of emphysema due to alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.
  • Vaccinations against influenza and pneumonia, as recommended by your doctor to help avoid respiratory infections. This doesn't treat the emphysema but can prevent flare-ups.

For the vast majority of people with emphysema, the best way to prevent it and slow it down is to not smoke. This outweighs all other considerations.

Following these tips can help protect your lungs if you have emphysema:

  • Don't smoke.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Avoid air pollution as much as possible.
  • Use air conditioning with a filter and humidity control.
  • Avoid allergic "triggers" that can aggravate emphysema if asthma coexists.
  • Avoid high altitudes.
  • Wash your hands and brush your teeth frequently to avoid infections.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to reduce the buildup of thick mucous in your air passages.


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