07/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Emphysema: Symptoms, Sufferers, And Everything Else You Need To Know

It was reported yesterday that Amy Winehouse, the bee-hived Brit singer, is suffering from emphysema. According to the AP:

The Sunday Mirror quoted Mitch Winehouse as saying that Amy has early stage emphysema and an irregular heartbeat, and has been warned that she will have to wear an oxygen mask unless she stops smoking drugs.

What is emphysema?

Emphysema is a progressive lung disease that results in shortness of breath and reduces your capacity for physical activity.

The cause of emphysema is damage to the small air sacs and small airways in your lungs. This damage obstructs airflow when you exhale.

When emphysema is advanced, you must work so hard to expel air from your lungs that just the simple act of breathing can consume a great deal of energy. Unfortunately, because emphysema develops gradually over many years, you may not experience symptoms such as shortness of breath until irreversible damage has already occurred.

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What causes emphysema?

* The main cause of emphysema is smoking, which activates inflammatory cells in the lung. This inflammation causes; 1) swelling within the bronchioles, and 2) activation of enzymes called proteases which attack and destroy lung tissue (the alveolar wall structures).

* There is a genetic predisposition to emphysema. The relatively rare condition known as alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency is the genetic deficiency of a chemical that protects the lung from damage by proteases.

* Emphysema is also a component of aging. As the lungs get older, the elastic properties decrease, and the tensions that develop can result in small areas of emphysema.

In underdeveloped countries, a common cause of emphysema is indoor air pollution. In these populations, it is very common to have indoor stoves in the kitchen. The smoke from cooking results in the damage to the lungs.

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What happens to people who get emphysema?

[The struggle to breath] eventually means that the body is not getting enough oxygen, leading to fatigue and weight loss. Although it can start simply as mild breathlessness during exercise and a persistent cough, it can leave sufferers housebound and reliant on oxygen supplies, and eventually contribute to death.

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What is the treatment for emphysema?

Treatment for emphysema can take many forms. Different approaches to treatment are available. Generally, a doctor will prescribe these treatments in a step-wise approach, depending on the severity of your condition.

Stop smoking: Although not strictly a treatment, most doctors make this recommendation for people with emphysema (and everyone).

Bronchodilating medications: These medications, which cause the air passages to open more fully and allow better air exchange, are usually the first medications that a doctor will prescribe for emphysema.

Steroid medications: They decrease inflammation in the body. They are used for this effect in the lung and elsewhere and have been shown to be of some benefit in emphysema.

Antibiotics: These medications are often prescribed for people with emphysema who have increased shortness of breath.

Oxygen: If you have shortness of breath and go to a hospital's emergency department, you often are given oxygen. It may even be necessary to give oxygen by placing a tube in your windpipe and allowing a machine to assist your breathing. In some cases, it may be necessary for you to receive oxygen at home as well.

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Besides Amy Winehouse, who else has had emphysema?

Christy Turlington is a famous anti-smoking and emphysema spokesperson and both T. S. Eliot and writer William F. Buckley Jr succumbed to the disease, while Johnny Carson died from it in 2005. And that is just to name a few.