Shortness of breath is usually one of the first and most pronounced symptoms of emphysema. This caused by over inflation of the lungs. Shortness of breath, especially during activity, is one of the earliest symptoms of emphysema. In addition, patients may suffer from frequent colds accompanied by coughing. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath becomes constant, even during rest. To understand what it feels like to have the over inflated lungs of an emphysema patient, take a deep breath and then try to breathe in and out, on top of the first one. Breathing is very shallow and it’s easy to see how activity becomes impossible.
Other symptoms of emphysema include:
- Distress resulting from the inability to get enough air
- Chronic mucus production
- The feeling of not being able to get enough air
- Weight loss
- Exhaling through pursed lips or grunting before exhaling
- Needing to lean forward to breathe while sitting
- Anxiety and/or depression
People with emphysema are often thin and have very pink skin. Patients with advanced disease may have the characteristic barrel chests from the increase in lung size.
Almost all patients with emphysema are habitual, long-term, heavy smokers. Smoking is the number one risk factor for emphysema.
People in such occupations as farming or mining who are exposed to chemical fumes or biologically inactive dust, such as silica or cotton dust, are also at risk for emphysema. Factors that create the potential for high levels of indoor air pollution, such as outdoor pollution, cooking with wood or coal, or having indoor heating without proper ventilation, can place a person at risk for emphysema.
Another predisposing factor for emphysema is AAT deficiency, an inherited disorder that primarily affects white people of northern European descent. People with this form of emphysema generally develop the disease in their thirties and forties. There are approximately 50,000 to 100,000 people in the U.S. with AAT deficiency, but only 20,000 to 40,000 of these people will develop emphysema. This deficiency is found in just 3% of all emphysema patients.
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