Many of the people with emphysema are older men, but the condition is increasing among women. Males with emphysema outnumber females by more than 54 per cent.
Emphysema begins with the destruction of air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs where oxygen from the air is exchanged for carbon dioxide in the blood. The walls of the air sacs are thin and fragile. Damage to the air sacs is irreversible and results in permanent 'holes' in the tissues of the lower lungs.
As air sacs are destroyed, the lungs are able to transfer less and less oxygen to the bloodstream, causing shortness of breath. The lungs also lose their elasticity. The patient experiences great difficulty exhaling.
Emphysema comes on very gradually. Years of exposure to the irritation of cigarette smoke usually precede the development of emphysema. Quitting smoking is therefore the single most important factor for maintaining healthy lungs.
Half of the people who have emphysema are over 65; nearly all the rest are over 45. Frequently, those with emphysema live in areas where pollution is a constant problem. Bronchodilator drugs (prescription drugs that relax and open air passages in the lungs) are prescribed to treat emphysema. These drugs may be inhaled as aerosol sprays or taken orally.