Health & Medicine

A reason to quit smoking in 2016: What you need to know about emphysema


Everyone talks about New Year’s resolutions, but do they really make a difference in lifestyle changes? Some may choose to eat healthier, while others may want to exercise more. If smoking cessation is one of your resolutions, it may be in your best interest to stick with your goal.

Smoking can cause a number of ailments, including lung cancer, but emphysema is one of the most common diseases resulting from tobacco use. More than a quarter of Kentucky residents smoke, according to the latest data from the CDC.

Emphysema, which is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a disease of the lungs that affects a person’s ability to breathe. Inside the lungs, small air sacs exist called alveoli, which allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to move in and out of the lungs. When you smoke, you damage the alveoli. Unfortunately, alveoli don’t grow back. What you’re born with is all you get.

More than 11 million people in the U.S. have COPD, but most people who have emphysema don’t even realize it. In fact, according to the American Lung Association, it is estimated that 24 million people have COPD but go undiagnosed. Shortness of breath, a chronic cough, wheezing and phlegm are common symptoms. Adults who experience shortness of breath while doing everyday tasks should seek medical attention, because shortness of breath is not a typical symptom simply attributed to aging.

Doctors can easily diagnose a patient with emphysema by performing a pulmonary function test. This simple, noninvasive test measures how much you inhale and exhale while you breathe into a tube. Some physicians may confirm the diagnosis with a chest X-ray, CT of the chest, or blood gas test to measure the oxygen level in your blood.

While there is no cure for emphysema, many patients find relief from the frustrating symptoms through a combination of medications and making lifestyle changes, including quitting smoking. Smoking cessation will stop alveoli from dying, thus preventing the disease from worsening. Your doctor may write you a prescription for an inhaler or a nebulizer, both of which can optimize whatever lung tissue is still functioning properly.

When the disease symptoms become too much for inhalers, doctors may recommend oxygen. A portable, supplemental oxygen helps make breathing easier for emphysema patients.

Unfortunately, emphysema is irreversible. However, smoking cessation is the number one way to avoid the disease or prevent it from getting worse. Talk to your doctor today about options for how you can successfully quit smoking this year or address your emphysema.

Dr. Eli Colon is with KentuckyOne Health Pulmonology Associates