How Emphysema Relates to COPD
Emphysema is not the same disease as COPD, but rather a specific condition that falls within COPD. That is, you can have COPD without emphysema, but you can’t have emphysema without COPD. However, most COPD patients have a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and there can be more of one and less of the other in any given case.
Since symptoms will differ according to the progression and severity of COPD, emphysema treatment can range from inhaled steroids to surgery. The first step is to understand how emphysema specifically affects your lungs, and how it differs from chronic bronchitis, before you settle on a treatment plan.
Emphysema vs. Chronic Bronchitis in COPD
Although some discomfort of COPD can be halted or reversed, emphysema is generally a permanent and worsening condition. Emphysema weakens and paralyzes alveoli, the tiny air sacs in your lungs that inflate and deflate when you inhale and exhale, and the capillaries that run very close to them. Once these important lung structures lose elasticity, your body can no longer move oxygen through your blood or expel carbon dioxide efficiently. In advanced cases of emphysema, the tiny air sacs will completely break down, leaving little spaces that trap stale air. In this case, exhalation will become very difficult and uncomfortable.
Chronic bronchitis is the other major condition that falls under COPD. This involves an inflammation of the airways in your lungs, and it limits the amount of oxygen you take in with every breath. With an excess of mucus and deep, frequent coughing, chronic bronchitis can be more than inconvenient: the build-up of mucus in your narrow airways can harbor bacteria and lead to regular lung infections like the flu and pneumonia. Since emphysema and chronic bronchitis often occur together in COPD, your treatment plan will likely address both conditions with different drugs.
Oral Treatments for Emphysema
Medication will be an important part of your treatment plan, but the types of medication you take will depend on whether your emphysema or chronic bronchitis is more prominent. In all cases, smoking cessation drugs should be first on the list if you’re still smoking – quitting smoking is the single most effective step in halting the progression of emphysema.
Other treatments can be taken orally to decrease the discomforts associated with emphysema:
- Corticosteroid inhalers can reduce inflammation and relieve shortness of breath very quickly.
- Oral steroids like prednisone can be good long-term supplements to the short-term relief of inhaled medication.
- Supplemental oxygen can be taken during activity or throughout the whole day and night to maintain higher blood oxygen levels. This allows for easier breathing and more energy for daily tasks.
When to Consider Surgery
In some advanced cases, a surgical option might bring the most relief. The first choice will likely be lung volume reduction surgery, which physically removes the dead tissue that’s trapping the stale air. After the damaged tissue is removed, the healthy lung tissue that remains will work more efficiently, and patients should find it easier to breathe. Only when all other treatments have failed will lung transplant become an option, since this brings extreme risk.
The best approach to emphysema treatment is to follow the recommendations of your doctor and make healthy changes to your lifestyle for better immunity and a stronger body. However, emotional support is crucial, too. Whether you talk to a counselor, join an emphysema support group or visit online forums regularly, you can find helpful coping strategies and stay up to date on new treatments as they become available.