Emphysema - Causes and Risks

If known, what was the cause of your emphysema?

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What are the causes or risk factors for emphysema?

  • The main risk factor for emphysema is smoking, which activates inflammatory cells in the lung. This inflammation causes; 1) swelling within the bronchioles, and 2) activation of enzymes called proteases which attack and destroy lung tissue (the alveolar wall structures). This leads to centriacinar (centri=central+acinus=sac) emphysema, which begins in the bronchioles and gradually spreads peripherally to the far reaches of the lung. There may be a genetic contribution tot he development of emphysema, since not all people who smoke suffer from emphysema.
  • There is also an inherited form of emphysema. The relatively rare condition known as alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency is the genetic deficiency of a chemical that protects the lung from damage by proteases. This results in panacinar (pan=widespread+acinus=sac) emphysema, which destroys the alveoli throughout the lung uniformly.
  • Emphysema is also a component of aging. As the lungs get older, the elastic properties decrease, and the tensions that develop can result in small areas of emphysema.

Other less common causes of emphysema include:

  • Intravenous drug use in which some of the non-drug additives like corn starch can be toxic to lung tissue
  • Immune deficiencies in which infections like Pneumocystis carinii can cause inflammatory changes in the lung
  • Connective tissue illnesses (Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Marfan syndrome) in which abnormal elastic tissue in the body can cause alveoli to fail

In underdeveloped countries, a common cause of emphysema is indoor air pollution. In these populations, it is very common to have indoor stoves in the kitchen. The smoke from cooking results in the damage to the lungs.

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See what others are saying

Comment from: Lisa, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: May 22

I contracted this disease by smoking and by living across the street from an acid regeneration factory.

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Comment from: DIANE, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: May 30

My doctor told me because of having asthma and at least 30 plus years of smoking and a history of chronic bronchitis, my breathing became short and wheezing became very bad, especially at bedtime which never occurred before. So this Thursday came the bad news, he informed me that I have emphysema! He sent me for blood work and x-rays immediately. I should have listened to him a few years ago when he warned me to quit smoking or eventually I would end up with emphysema. Well, I didn"t listen! Please don"t doubt your doctor when he warns you about something like this, like I did. That's why they are called doctors!

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