Living with Emphysema: What Are Your Treatment Options?

As of the time this was written, over 406,000 Americans have lost their lives due to COVID-19. Many of them were vulnerable to the disease because of pre-existing chronic conditions such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and emphysema. Emphysema is a lung condition that causes difficulty breathing. It is typically caused by long-term exposure to airborne irritants, primarily tobacco smoke, but also marijuana smoke, chemical fumes and dust, and air pollution. For the over three million Americans with an emphysema diagnosis, day-to-day living with the disease is often marked by discomfort and lifestyle limitations. If you are among the millions living with this incurable disease, there are treatment options that can mitigate your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Emphysema Treatment Options

Emphysema causes the lung’s air sacs to deteriorate. As a result, less lung surface area leads to shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. There is a range of treatment options for emphysema. Depending on your condition’s severity and any other health issues or risk factors you may be living with, your doctor will recommend an appropriate treatment plan.

Therapy

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. You learn breathing techniques to improve your breathing and ability to complete cardiovascular exercise.
  • Nutrition therapy. Proper nutrition and weight loss can improve life in the early stages of emphysema.
  • Supplemental oxygen. Patients with severe emphysema that causes low blood oxygen levels may be prescribed regular oxygen use up to 24 hours per day.

Medications

  • Drugs that relieve breathing problems and coughing by relaxing tightened airways. They are available as inhalers in powder and metered dose forms and through nebulizer machines that convert a liquid to aerosol.
  • Corticosteroid drugs inhaled as aerosol sprays. Reduce inflammation and may lessen shortness of breath. The brand Advair brings salmeterol (a bronchodilator) and fluticasone (a corticosteroid) together.
  • If your emphysema is worsened by bronchitis or pneumonia, antibiotics may improve respiratory symptoms.
  • Oral steroids. Oral steroids like prednisone can improve lung function.
  • Mucolytic agents. Coming in the form of expectorants, they help to bring mucus up from the lungs.

Surgery

  • Lung volume reduction surgery. A surgeon will remove small wedges of damaged lung tissue to allow the remaining tissue to expand and work more efficiently. Lung reduction surgery is generally not performed on older adults due to health risks.
  • Lung transplant. When lung damage is severe and other treatment options fail, lung transplantation may be the most viable option.

Long-Term Outlook

Without lifestyle changes and treatment, emphysema can cause tissue injury and eventually become fatal. While there’s no cure for emphysema, by working with your doctor and following their treatment plan, you can keep your condition from worsening to the point where only an invasive procedure can improve your lifestyle.

If you need help quitting smoking, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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