Emphysema is a lung disease that is a progressive and potentially fatal illness. Caused most often by smoking, emphysema begins with the weakening and thinning of the walls of the air sacs in the lungs.
These air sacs, called alveoli, help to process the oxygen from the air we breathe and absorb this oxygen for delivery throughout the body. When the walls grow weak and thin, it becomes harder for the person to breathe, with breathing becoming less and less efficient.
In the beginning, inflammation in the airways and bronchioles limits air getting to the alveoli. But, once the inflammation leads to actual damage inside the lungs, the disease of emphysema can be diagnosed.
When the patient exhales, the alveoli and small airways collapse. This traps air inside the lungs, making it harder to fully exhale and to take in new fresh air as well.
Over time, as the lungs cannot keep up with the body’s need for oxygen, the breathing rate increases. But, eventually this is no longer enough. The arteries in the lung begin to shrink, leading to pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure inside the lungs). Pushing too hard to get blood through these narrow arteries, the heart can enlarge, leading to heart failure.