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Emphysema Prevention and Risk Factors

Information regarding emphysema prevention and risk factors is widely available, and may help save lives.

Avoiding secondhand smoke will reduce the risk of emphysema. [© Shutterstock, 2010]
© Shutterstock, 2010
Avoiding secondhand smoke will reduce the risk of emphysema.

Emphysema Prevention and Risk Factors

Having a solid understanding of emphysema prevention and risk factors will help high-risk individuals and others to avoid the disease. Risk factors are generally classified into environmental and genetic factors. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the greatest risk factor for emphysema by far is smoking; most of the remaining cases are attributed to an inherited disorder. There are also a few other known risk factors of emphysema that are less significant.

Emphysema is a chronic lung disease that occurs when small air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, lose their elasticity or rupture. When the alveoli lose their ability to contract, it becomes more difficult to empty the lungs. Emphysema is a slow, progressive disease that normally takes years to develop and the damage is usually irreversible by the time the symptoms are noticeable. The primary symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath and a prolonged breathing cycle, particularly exhalation.

Risk of Emphysema Due to Smoking

The greatest single risk factor for emphysema is cigarette smoking. One in seven smokers will develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is the term for emphysema and chronic bronchitis, two conditions that commonly occur together. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. The risk for all types of smokers increases with the length of time and amount of material smoked. Men are affected more often and comprise 61 percent of cases. Secondhand smoke also increases the risk of emphysema. This type of smoke is inhaled inadvertently by someone else's cigar, cigarette or pipe.

Genetic Risk of Emphysema

An inherited form of emphysema occurs before the age if 50, especially in smokers. This rare mutation causes a deficiency of the protein alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) when a person has two defective genes. Approximately 100,000 people in the United States have an AAT deficiency and there are about 25 million people have a single defective AAT gene. One defective AAT gene may cause mild to moderate symptoms or be completely asymptomatic. These people can also pass the defective gene on to their children. Anyone younger than the age of 50 with emphysema should be tested for an AAT deficiency, especially if they have a family history of AAT deficiency or do not smoke. Anyone with an AAT deficiency may also want to have immediate family members tested as well.

Additional Risk Factors of Emphysema

According to the Mayo Clinic, people between the ages of 50 and 60 are most likely to see the initial symptoms of smoking-related emphysema. Other irritants in the lungs can also cause emphysema, so occupational exposure to chemical fumes or dust from cotton, grain, mining products and wood can also increase the risk of emphysema. Pollutants such as car exhaust and fumes from heating fuel are also dangerous to inhale. Smokers who are infected with HIV carry a greater risk of developing emphysema than those without HIV.

Connective tissue provides the framework and support for the body. Disorders of the connective tissue such as cutis laxa and Marfan syndrome can also cause an increase in the risk of emphysema. Cutis laxa is a rare disease that causes premature aging and Marfan syndrome affects many different organs.

Prevention of Emphysema

The best way to prevent emphysema is not to smoke or to stop smoking as soon as possible. Smoking cessation can slow the progression of emphysema, especially for patients with AAT deficiency. People should also limit their exposure to secondhand smoke and see a doctor at the first sign of symptoms. Nicotine replacement is a common component in a smoking cessation program that includes counseling from a qualified health care provider. The evidence showing nicotine replacement therapy to be effective is clear and convincing. It is also less harmful to get nicotine from a nicotine replacement product than cigarettes since tobacco contains many other toxic substances besides nicotine.

Limiting exposure to environmental irritants can prevent emphysema or avoid aggravating symptoms. This includes maintaining good health habits, such as regular exercise, proper nutrition and adequate sleep, which can improve stamina and resistance to infections. Taking steps to minimize exposure to harmful air pollution is also helpful. Weather reports can be monitored for current information on air quality so that outdoor activity may be restricted to early morning or evening on days when the smog level is high. Someone with occupational exposure to respiratory irritants should wear a dust mask or other suitable protection.

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