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Updated: 4/11/2007 2:47 pm
Emphysema (em-fa-SEE-ma) is a chronic, irreversible lung disease that slowly destroys the air sacs in the lungs. This reduces the elasticity of the lungs and interferes with breathing, making it hard to move air in and out of the lungs. Your chest may distend into a barrel-like shape. You may also become more susceptible to chest infections such as pneumonia and cardiovascular problems. In severe conditions, the disease can lead to eventual respiratory or cardiac failure. Emphysema is usually caused by cigarette smoking and occurs most frequently in males over the age of 45. However, the number of females being diagnosed with emphysema is rising because of an increase in the number of women smokers. Other causes may include living in an area with polluted air or from inherited conditions leading to destruction of parts of the lung tissues. Symptoms of emphysema usually begin with breathing difficulty in the morning and at night. This can be followed by breathlessness after climbing stairs. If the condition progresses, your lungs can deteriorate to the point that you become disabled. If you have emphysema and smoke, you should quit immediately. The longer you smoke, the more damage is likely to occur. It's also best to stay indoors on days when pollution levels are high. Exercises that strengthen your diaphragm and abdominal muscles will make breathing easier. Medications and breathing aids may also help. If you think you are experiencing symptoms of emphysema, such as chronic shortness of breath, contact a health care provider.

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