What happens when a person has emphysema?
Before we proceed with the discussion on the risk factors for emphysema, we need to talk about what happens when someone has this condition.
In a healthy person:
After we inhale, air travels to the nasal cavity, pharynx, and trachea. From the trachea, the air proceeds to the left and right primary bronchi.
To reach the elastic, grape-like alveolar sacs in the lungs, air will first pass through the small, tubular bronchioles. Once in the alveolar sacs, the gas exchange happens. This means the alveoli expand to take in oxygen and shrink or constrict to release carbon dioxide.
When someone has emphysema:
When a person has emphysema, the alveolar sacs sustain damage, either by losing their elasticity or becoming inflamed. The damage prevents the sacs from supporting the bronchioles. As a result, the bronchioles collapse, and air cannot move out of the alveolar sacs.
Over time, the trapped air causes the alveolar sacs to rupture or lose their shape (elasticity). This eventually leads to symptoms like difficulty of breathing.
How does smoking cause emphysema?
Later on, we’ll talk about the causes of emphysema besides smoking. But for now, let’s explain why smoking is the main cause of pulmonary emphysema.
According to reports, cigarette smoking is responsible for the majority of emphysema cases because it damages the lung tissues. Moreover, cigarettes can irritate the airways and cause inflammation.
This inflammation affects the cilia or the hair-like projections lining the bronchial tubes. Cilia function to “sweep” unwanted debris (such as microbes) from the airways. So when it sustains damage, the body will have a difficult time clearing the airways. As a result, there will be further inflammation and excessive mucus production, both of which lead to difficulty breathing.