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Asthma and Emphysema–Can’t Get Air Out or In

icon By: Kurt - Medicine Simply Put
06/13/2011

We have all experienced shortness of breath.  Sometimes it’s from food or even spit going down wrong tube and choking us, and other times it’s because we’ve gotten the wind knocked out of us.  It’s a scary feeling not being able to breathe.  You’d think if this happened a lot one would be religious in following any treatment guidelines prescribed, but it is very common for me to have to work a patient into the schedule who is short of breath due to having an asthma attack or an emphysema patient having a breathing crisis because they stopped medications or breathing exercises.

Asthma is when the tissue lining the airway down to the lungs develops an allergy, a hypersensitivity to pollen, air temperature, dust, etc.  The tissue gets irritated, making more mucus and swelling in response.  This results in the airway narrowing, effectively closing it off and causing an asthma attack.  The problem is not getting air in; it is getting it out.  With medication, one can exercise, be outside, and even participate in the Olympics.

Emphysema is when the little air sacs (alveoli) that expand and contract like a balloon every time you breathe in and out get clogged with debris.  Tar and nicotine are the biggest culprits, but it can affect even those who have been daily inhaling fumes, dust, paint etc., making it so the balloons (alveoli) can no longer be filled with air.  It’d be like spraying inside a blown up balloon with spray paint, and letting it dry; and the balloon stays in this blown up state.  Each day more alveoli are taken off-line, and it gets harder and harder to breathe. We have billions of these grape-like air sacs in our lungs, and each one has an artery and a vein so small that it can pull the air right through the porous tissue.  Emphysema is almost entirely from smoking.

The treatment for both asthma and emphysema are two types of inhalers.  One is a long acting maintenance inhaler that lasts for 12 to 24 hours and keeps airways and sacs open.  It is used daily like a vitamin to prevent attacks or crisis.  A rescue inhaler is also given for those breakthrough shortness of breath moments to open one’s airway or clog up immediately and lasts for just a few hours.

Most medical providers can’t seem to get people to use their maintenance inhalers every day; this is a big problem.  The patients  rely only on the rescue inhaler 3 or 4 times a day.  Then they notice it doesn’t work as well because they burn out the receptors that the medication works on.  Then they have to be switched to a different kind that hits a different receptor.

Medications work for asthmatics and quitting smoking works for emphysema patients to not worsen and even improve their condition.  Deep breathing exercises and purse mouth breathing also helps for both.

So breathe my friends, breathe.  Enjoy every breath.

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