In emphysema, the alveoli, or air sacs that lie deep within the lungs, become damaged and eventually burst, leaving large holes that trap air within the lungs. When air is trapped, it is difficult for the lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, which can result in low oxygen (hypoxemia) and eventually high carbon dioxide (hypercapnia) levels in the blood.
Although there is no cure for emphysema, the goal of treatment is to slow the progression of the disease, treat the obstructed airways to relieve associated hypoxia and improve quality of life.
Currently, there are no drug treatments available that have proven successful in modifying the rate of decline in lung function for those who have emphysema. There are, however, medications available to treat emphysema, which can help to reduce or abolish symptoms, increase exercise tolerance, reduce the number and frequency of COPD exacerbations and improve overall health status.
Common medications used in the treatment of stable COPD include the following:
- Glucocorticoids (limited to specific indications)
- Antibiotics (only during infectious exacerbations)
Non-Medication-Related Treatment for Emphysema
To further support the goals of treatment for emphysema, non-pharmacological measures include those types of treatments that don't involve medication, but which can greatly improve patient outcomes.
Through assessment, exercise, education and psychological support, the goals of pulmonary rehabilitation are to reduce symptoms, improve quality of life and increase physical and emotional participation in daily activities. In a broader sense, pulmonary rehabilitation also helps to reduce overall health care costs among the COPD population.
With the help of an interdisciplinary approach, benefits of a pulmonary rehabilitation program include the following:
- Improves exercise tolerance
- Reduces the perceived intensity of breathlessness
- Improves health status and quality of life
- Reduces the number of COPD hospitalizations and length of stay
- Reduces anxiety and depression
- Improves upper body strength and endurance
According to the Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD), an effective pulmonary rehabilitation program should last at least six weeks. Moreover, the longer that the program remains in effect, the more effective the results.
Learn more about living with COPD:
Oxygen therapy can be administered either continuously, during activity or to relieve sudden episodes of shortness of breath. Long-term oxygen therapy (> 15 hours a day) has been shown to increase survival rates in people with COPD and helps preserve the function of all vital organs.
Usually, long-term oxygen therapy is initiated during Stage IV (very severe) COPD for patients who demonstrate low oxygen saturation levels or low blood oxygen.
Learn more about the stages of COPD and oxygen therapy:
- Pulmonary Function Tests and the Stages of COPD
- Oxygen Therapy: What you Need to Know
- Treatment of COPD
- Pros and Cons of Heliox Treatment
- Oxygen Facts
3. Smoking Cessation
Smoking cessation remains the single, most important aspect of emphysema treatment, but is also the most overlooked. If you are searching for information to help you quit smoking, visit About.com's Smoking Cessation Guide Site for helpful tips on how to make quitting easier
Learn more about quitting smoking:
- 10 Tips to Help you Quit Smoking
- Health Hazards of Secondhand Smoke
- How Jessica Quit Smoking with Chantix
4. Surgical Intervention
Currently there are three types of lung surgery for treatment of end-stage emphysema in patients with severe symptoms not improved by medication therapy. They are as follows:
Learn more about the three types of surgery for emphysema and view the Lung Transplant Image Gallery:
Emphysema is a disease that is often deadly in nature. Though irreversible, consistent treatment of your emphysema will help you breathe easier, improve your health status and allow you to live a better quality of life.
Still have questions about emphysema? Visit our COPD Forums for more information.
Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management and Prevention of COPD, Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) 2006. Available from: http://www.goldcopd.org.