Is Emphysema Always Fatal?

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A progressively debilitating lung disease, called emphysema, is truly breathtaking. It occurs when there is damage to the alveoli (the lung’s air sacs), negatively affecting the gas exchange process that should naturally take place in the lungs. If left untreated or poorly managed, this CPOD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) has the potential to swiftly escalate into a life-threatening (fatal) condition.

Is emphysema always fatal?

When the disease has become advanced, it is likely to lead to complications which some could be fatal and life-threatening. Advanced emphysema could cause problems related with the heart and lung function.

Chronic excess stress on the heart due to decreased oxygen levels can lead to high blood pressure, heart enlargement, and even probably heart failure. Emphysema and CPOD may also cause an elevated risk of having respiratory infections, particularly true during the cold and flu season.

But while it is incurable (there is currently no cure for the disease), it is manageable. With appropriate combination of treatments and lifestyle adjustments, you’re likely able to alleviate symptoms and enhance overall well-being. So it’s possible to deal with it and prevent its complications!

Emphysema prognosis and outlook can vary from patient to patient. In general, it depends on several factors. The main ones are probably the severity (stage) of the disease and the presence of any complications from the disease [1].

Early diagnosis plays a key role, too. Early diagnosis means the disease is diagnosed at early stage (before it becomes advanced) and likely to be easily treated & managed!

But unfortunately it’s often diagnosed at late stages (mostly stage II and stage III), making it more difficult to treat and leading to poor prognosis. Emphysema stages consist of 4 stages, these are as follows [2]:

  1. Early stage (stage I): In the initial phases of emphysema, there is usually minimal symptom or even without any symptom.
  2. Over time, the disease may progress to stage II in which the lung capacity drops to (50-80) percent. In such case, you may experience symptoms such as persistent cough and start considering a visit to your doctor for help.
  3. Stage III, more significant flare-ups of symptoms with (30-50) percent lung capacity.
  4. Stage IV, more frequent hospitalizations (typically with extreme difficulty breathing)

Ways to prevent emphysema from becoming fatal!

Quit smoking is the most crucial thing to do to deal with the disease and prevent its progression to become fatal. Avoid also secondhand smoke!

Most experts believe that exposure to tobacco smoke is one of the main leading causes of emphysema (see more here). If you’re currently an active smoker, stopping smoking will help a lot to reduce the exposure to tobacco smoke and decrease the inflammation & prevent lung damage!

If necessary, consider discussing smoking cessation programs with your doctor in case if you find it challenging (you’re struggling) to stop and quit smoking! Your doctor may suggest nicotine replacement with counseling, group support, and (if required) medication for the highest likelihood of success to stop smoking!

Beyond tobacco smoke, various airborne irritants can also contribute into the aggravation of CPOD and emphysema to become fatal. In fact there is probably only 20 percent of smokers develop severe COPD and emphysema [3].

That’s why pay also attention to any other airborne irritants and bad environmental factors. Some of them you need to avoid include: bad air pollution, exhaust fumes (including fumes from paints or other chemicals), and excessive dust.

What else?

  1. Get vaccinations! People with emphysema, regardless of age, are at high risk of severe illness if they get infected with COVID-19, as highlighted by CDC. In response to this increased vulnerability, it’s recommended for them to get several key vaccines – including those for flu, tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, pneumococcal diseases, shingles, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) [4].
  2. Join an exercise program or comprehensive therapy to help manage emphysema, if necessary. Both breathing exercises and regular cardiovascular activities may help slow the progression of emphysema. For example, pulmonary rehabilitation programs not only provide guidance on exercises but also offer disease counseling. They may significantly improve breathlessness, increase exercise tolerance, and enhance physical activity levels for emphysema and COPD patients [5].

Furthermore, it’s also important to take care of your stress and mental health status! An emphysema diagnosis extends beyond physical health, impacting emotions and mental well-being.

COPD-related shortness of breath, for instance, may lead to social isolation, affecting engagement in your daily activities. Anxiety and depression, more prevalent in COPD patients, often go unnoticed.

Therefore, you need to manage your stress and also maintain connections with supportive networks! With appropriate strategies and treatment plan, people with emphysema should still be able to enjoy their life.


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