“When the air sacs start to break down, your body cannot send enough oxygen to your blood,” explains Dr. Raul Mendoza, pulmonologist at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay, Wis. “Many times, emphysema goes unnoticed and can lead to severe complications.”
Nearly 3.5 million Americans are currently diagnosed with emphysema, a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This condition develops when the air sacs in your lungs become damaged, leaving you feeling short of breath or with a persistent cough.
Dr. Mendoza shares four common myths about emphysema and the truth behind them:
Myth 1: Only smokers develop emphysema.
Fact: Though smoking is the leading cause of COPD and emphysema, non-smokers are also susceptible. If you live or work in an environment with smoke, chemical fumes, dust, or air pollution, you may be at risk for emphysema.
Myth 2: If you don’t smoke or breathe in pollutants, you won’t develop emphysema.
Fact: Even if you don’t smoke, breathing in second-hand smoke from tobacco or marijuana for prolonged periods of time may increase your chances for emphysema. Those who inherit alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a protein deficiency that impacts the health of your lungs, may also be at risk for emphysema and other conditions even if they’ve never been exposed to harsh chemicals.
Myth 3: You’ll notice something is wrong.
Fact: Emphysema occurs gradually, and it often takes many years of heavy exposure to chemicals for lungs to deteriorate. Many people may not inhibit symptoms until they are between the ages of 40 and 60, and some may mistake their lack of breath with getting older.
Myth 4: Once you develop emphysema, you’ll never feel better.
Fact: “Everyone’s body responds differently, and some cases may be more severe than others,” says Dr. Mendoza. Currently, there is no cure for emphysema, but symptoms can be treated with medication, therapies, and procedures, like this FDA-approved endobronchial valve, a minimally-invasive device that closes unhealthy areas of the lung to shift air to more beneficial areas of the lung, making breathing significantly easier for severe emphysema patients.
Other treatment options
If you do happen to be a smoker, quitting is the best thing you can do to treat your symptoms. Other treatment options can be used alongside each other such as: endobronchial valves, steroids, antibiotics, oxygen therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation. Your doctor can work with you to understand what might work best for you.