Emphysema can be a devastating disease. The accompanying pain, shortness of breath, and activity restrictions are often life-changing and permanent. However, home oxygen therapy, in conjunction with other physician-recommended treatments, offers patients the chance to be more mobile and live an active lifestyle.
What is Emphysema?
Emphysema is one form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is caused by damage to the alveoli, the tiny air sacs within the lungs. Because the alveoli are responsible for drawing oxygen from inhaled air into the bloodstream, shortness of breath results when they’re harmed. Therefore, more oxygen-rich air is often needed.
Most cases of emphysema are caused by smoking. However, it’s also possible to develop emphysema from long-term particle inhalation, such as fiberglass insulation or powdered fertilizers. These particles irritate and destroy the alveoli in much the same way as tobacco smoke.
The most obvious symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath. Patients often feel that they can’t get a good lungful of air. This usually manifests first during physical activity, but later appears at rest, as well.
Increased susceptibility to pulmonary infections is another result of emphysema. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis go hand-in-hand, and patients must always guard against respiratory infections.
Treatments for Emphysema
Although there is currently no complete cure for emphysema, treatments are available. Emphysema treatments aim to keep patients active and improve their quality of life.
For most victims of emphysema, prescribed medications are the first line of treatment. Inhaled bronchodilators and corticosteroids can open the airways and ease dyspnea, or difficulty breathing. Unfortunately, these medications are sometimes accompanied by side effects, especially with long-term use.
- Pulmonary Rehabilitation
A pulmonologist may prescribe a pulmonary rehabilitation program for patients with emphysema. This consists of breathing exercises designed to increase lung capacity and strengthen the diaphragm.
- Surgical Treatments
In severe cases, surgical intervention may be needed. This can be in the form of removing diseased portions of the lung, or more rarely, a total lung transplant.
The Role of Oxygen Therapy
Pulmonologists often order oxygen therapy in conjunction with all of the above emphysema treatments. Increasing the concentration of oxygen in inhaled air allows the compromised alveoli to draw more oxygen into the body. This, in turn, reduces gasping and “air hunger” and eases dyspnea. Patients on oxygen therapy often find they don’t have to work as hard to breathe and can relax more fully.
Pulmonologists may advise their patients to use oxygen while sleeping, when active, or constantly, depending on the particular situation. Many patients discover they’re able to stay more active, travel, and exercise more often once they’ve started oxygen therapy.
Emphysema patients also must be careful of cold, dry air, which can further irritate the lungs and leave them more prone to infection. Oxygen therapy can provide warmed, humidified air to combat this issue and reduce problems from low ambient temperatures.
Oxygen therapy shouldn’t be seen as a limitation, but rather as an opportunity to live more freely. Modern oxygen units are small and portable, allowing patients to choose their level of activity and go where they wish. This portability, in combination with the higher energy levels from concentrated oxygen, makes life with emphysema less limiting.
Information on this page is for reference and educational purposes only. For more information about oxygen therapy and emphysema treatment, talk to your doctor or primary care provider.
Page last updated: October 2, 2018
Mayo Clinic. Emphysema. Last updated: April 28, 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/emphysema/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20355561