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Emphysema is a progressive disease caused by damage to portions of the lungs that lead to the air sacs. As a result, air cannot reach the air sacs and patients are chronically short of breath. It is almost always caused by smoking, and less commonly by long-term exposure to air pollution or other lung irritants. In very rare cases, it can be caused by alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency.
Emphysema is usually diagnosed by starting with a medical history. From there, the patient is given lung function testing and x-rays. This helps distinguish emphysema from treatable conditions such as asthma or chronic bronchitis.
Emphysema cannot be reversed - the lung damage is permanent. As such, treatment focusses on slowing the progression of the disease and alleviating symptoms. Smoking must be avoided altogether, and patients must avoid localities with bad air quality. Symptoms can alleviated with anticholinergics (which prevent the bronchial tubes from becoming inflamed), bronchodilators to aid breathing, and steroids. Patients are usually put on oxygen. A lung transplant is usually contraindicated as patients are unlikely to survive the surgery.