There is no cure for emphysema. Instead, treatment focuses on helping patients breathe easier by relieving symptoms.
The following treatments may be used alone or in combination in treating emphysema:
The most important step you can take in treating emphysema is to quit smoking. Your doctor can help you by recommending programs and products that can help you quit. In addition, joining a support group with other people who are quitting smoking can be very helpful.
You should also avoid secondhand smoke, and places where other lung irritants, such as dust, fumes, or toxic substances, are present as much as possible.
Physical activity can help to strengthen the muscles used in breathing, increase your lung capacity, and improve your overall wellness. Your doctor can help you determine what kinds of activity are safe for you.
Protecting yourself from cold air is important. Cold air can cause the airways to spasm, which makes it more difficult to breathe. Wear a scarf or mask over your nose and mouth in cold weather.
It is also important to protect yourself from respiratory infections. Avoid contact with people who have the flu or a cold, and avoid large groups of people during cold and flu season. Wash your hands frequently, and consider wearing a face mask and carrying hand sanitizer with you.
In addition, your doctor might recommend pulmonary rehabilitation, which encompasses a variety of methods designed to improve the well-being of people with chronic breathing problems. Rehab may include an exercise program, training in managing COPD, nutritional counseling, and psychological counseling.
There are several types of medication that help to treat COPD:
- Bronchodilators: relax the muscles around your airways, which help to open the airways and makes breathing easier. Bronchodilators can be short-acting or long-acting. Short-acting bronchodilators should be used on an as-needed basis and last for about 4-6 hours. They are usually used when emphysema is mild. Long-acting bronchodilators are used every day and last for 12 hours or more. They are generally prescribed when emphysema is moderate or severe.
- Inhaled corticosteroid medications: can reduce inflammation of the airways and help prevent exacerbations. However, they may have side effects that include bruising, oral infections, and hoarseness.
- Antibiotics: respiratory infections such as acute bronchitis, pneumonia, and influenza can aggravate emphysema symptoms. Antibiotics treat these infections. One antibiotic, azithromycin, has been shown to reduce exacerbations of COPD and may be prescribed by your doctor if you are prone to exacerbations.
- Vaccines: influenza and pneumonia can cause serious problems for people who have emphysema. For this reason, it is important for emphysema patients to reduce their risk of getting these illnesses.
Surgery & Other Treatments
Though surgery may provide benefits to people with emphysema, it is usually a last resort for people who have more severe symptoms that have not improved with medication. There are three main types of surgery used in treating emphysema:
- Bullectomy: in patients with emphysema, the walls of the small air sacs in the lungs are destroyed. When this happens, larger air spaces called bullae form. These bullae can become so large they interfere with breathing. A bullectomy is a surgery to remove one or more large bullae from the lungs. Typically a bulla does not need to be removed until it takes up one-third of the lung.
- Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS): doctors surgically remove damaged lung tissue, which can help patients to breathe better. LVRS is not recommended for every emphysema patient, but can improve the breathing and quality of life in some patients. Those that have severe disease with more emphysema in the upper portions of the lung do best with this type of therapy.
- Lung transplant surgery: reserved for treating patients with very severe emphysema who do not have other treatment options. A lung transplant involves removing a damaged lung and replacing it with a healthy lung from a deceased donor. Lung transplants can significantly improve lung function and quality of life, but involves many risks, including the risk of infection, and even death if the body rejects the transplanted lung.
Doctors may also recommend oxygen therapy. Oxygen therapy can help people with severe emphysema that have low levels of oxygen in their blood to breathe better. The treatment involves administering oxygen either through a mask, or through two small tubes that enter the nose (nasal prongs). Some people who receive oxygen therapy need it all the time, while others only need it at certain times.