New Treatment for Emphysema Is Safer, Surer

New treatments for emphysema are expected to make it possible for the nearly 5 million Americans afflicted with the condition to breathe easier. The new treatments appear to be effective even for advanced cases of the condition that don’t always respond to standard techniques, and that may require complex and potentially dangerous procedures.

Emphysema is a lung disease in which the alveoli—the parts of the lungs that gather oxygen to put it into the blood—are gradually destroyed. The disease also weakens the fibers that operate thee air sacs. It’s normally caused by pollutants in the air, including tobacco and marijuana smoke, coal dust, and manufacturing exhaust. There’s also a rare hereditary form of the disease. The damage, which is permanent, gradually accumulates, and typically becomes noticeable after age 40.

The most obvious symptom is shortness of breath, which develops gradually. Many people think getting progressively more easily winded is just a sign of aging, but it may be cause for concern. Experts say you should see a doctor if shortness of breath is making it so that you can’t talk, or your lips turn blue, of if you have a rapid heartbeat or feel lightheaded. The doctor can use x-rays and other diagnostic imaging techniques to look for signs of emphysema, or a lung function test to measure lung capacity.

There is no medical cure. Current treatments are mostly about helping you get your breath back, such as corticosteroid aerosols or pulmonary rehabilitation training. People with advanced emphysema may need supplemental oxygen, either when exerting themselves particularly or all the time. In the most severe cases, surgery is used to reduce lung volume by getting rid of damaged tissue and so giving the remaining tissue room to work better, or a lung transplant as a last resort.

This surgical approach, however, is viewed as risky, and medical professionals do their best to avoid having to do it. A new treatment option now being tested uses a specialized foam sealant to seal and shrink diseased areas of the lung. This is thought to be a less risky way to reduce lung volume without major surgery.

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