Recognizing The Early Signs Of Emphysema

Emphysema is a serious lung condition most commonly caused by smoking. It makes breathing difficult and limits the amount of oxygen the bloodstream is able to transport, which can make everyday tasks more and more tiring as the disease progresses.

While the lung damage that emphysema causes is permanent, early treatment can slow its progress and help you breathe easier. At Northwest Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine in Algonquin, Illinois, Dennis Kellar, MD, and Madhu Gundavaram, MD, and our team of providers want to help you breathe easier for longer.

Our practice offers comprehensive care for breathing disorders, including emphysema. We’ve created this guide to help you recognize the early signs of emphysema, so you can get help as soon as possible.

What is emphysema?

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in which the air sacs in your lungs become irreversibly damaged. When you breathe, the air sacs in your lungs expand and contract. With emphysema, these sacs are weakened and unable to contract.

As more and more air sacs are affected as the disease progresses, it gets harder and harder to breathe, and your body is not able to get the oxygen it needs. With less oxygen in your bloodstream, you can become tired after doing the smallest of physical activities.

Smoking is the most common reason people develop emphysema and is linked to 80% of all emphysema cases. Other causes include secondhand smoke, smoking marijuana, pollution, chemical fumes, and genetics.

Currently, there’s no cure for emphysema. However, early diagnosis and intervention can stop emphysema from progressing.

What are the early signs of emphysema?

Although catching emphysema early is key to stopping the progression of the disease, many people don’t notice symptoms until their lungs are significantly damaged. Since smoking is the No. 1 cause of emphysema, if you smoke, it’s important to pay attention to early warning signs and visit your provider for a pulmonary function test.

Early signs of emphysema usually appear slowly, and changes in breathing can be hard to detect. Shortness of breath is usually the earliest symptom, and in the early stages, you may only notice it during or after physical activity.

As the disease progresses, you may also notice these other early signs of emphysema:

  • Wheezing
  • Tightness or pain in the chest, especially after physical exertion
  • A persistent or lingering cough, especially if you’re a former smoker

If you are or were a smoker and have any of these early signs, make an appointment with Northwest Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential in slowing the progress of this degenerative disease.

How is emphysema diagnosed and treated?

Your provider at Northwest Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine will first conduct a physical exam and evaluate your complete medical history. Depending on your symptoms and what your provider finds during your exam, they may also order diagnostic tests, including:

  • Chest X-ray
  • Bronchoscopy (with or without a biopsy)
  • Thoracentesis to drain fluid in the lung
  • Metabolic cart to measure oxygen use
  • Spirometry test to measure air inhaled and exhaled
  • Peak flow test to measure lung capacity
  • Cardiopulmonary stress test to evaluate heart and lung function
  • Six-minute walk test to measure oxygen inhalation during exertion

Treatment for emphysema begins with stopping smoking. If you’re struggling to quit, your provider may prescribe medications or counseling to help you stop. Treatment may also include prescription oxygen or medications to help you breathe. If you’re diagnosed with severe emphysema, you may need surgery.

To learn more about emphysema or to get treatment, book an appointment online or over the phone with Northwest Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine. Are you sheltering in place? We can help with our TELEMEDICINE services that allow you to meet with us from the comfort of your own home.