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COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

Is emphysema progressive?



I was recently diagnosed with very early emphysema. I quit smoking 3 months ago, which is presumably the cause of the emphysema. Will the emphysema continue to worsen or will it remain as it is now?


Emphysema is also known as COPD and is a chronic condition with multiple factors that impact diseae progression. Congratulations for quitting smoking--this is the most important thing you can do to slow COPD.

COPD is thought to be irreverible once the changes in the lungs occur. Inflammation that leads to the lung tissue destruction begins as a reponse to smoking. The development of symptoms in COPD is insidious, generally occurring over a long period of time (more than 20-30 years after beginning smoking).

While we all slowly lose lung function as we age, persons with COPD are reported to lose lung function at 3-4 times the rates of non-smokers. As you report that you have "early" emphysema, you may not yet have significant symptoms such as shortness of breath with activities or at rest.

While the disease itself is considered progressive, there are several steps you can take that will reduce the impact of the disease in your life.
1) The first you have already done by quitting smoking.
2) The second is to participate in an exercise program. Please talk to your health care provider about being referred to a formal pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) program. PR is a formal outpatient program of about 6 to 8 weeks 2-3 times per week for about 2 hours. In this program, you will exercise under supervision to build your strength and endurance and receive important education about how to manage your disease.
3) The third step is to make sure you are taking the medicines (usually inhaler form) prescribed as ordered for your COPD. These will help reduce shortness of breath--you may not yet be ordered any inhalers. At this point, you are at increased risk of developing bronchitis more easily. It is important that you use good handwashing and avoid folks with colds, etc. You also should receive a pneumonia vaccine (pneumovax) and a yearly flu shot to reduce your risk of upper respiratory infections.

It is important to keep you as healthy as possible while making you as strong as possible through exercise. Have you been seen by a pulmonologist (a physician who specializes in pulmonary diseases)? If not, this type of specialist can comprehensively evaluate your condition and ensure that you are being treated in the best manner. With the information needs listed above, a pulmonologist could provide more specific answers to your questions.

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Response by:

Gerene S Bauldoff, RN, PhD, FCCP, FAACVPR, FAAN Gerene S Bauldoff, RN, PhD, FCCP, FAACVPR, FAAN
Professor of Clinical Nursing
College of Nursing
The Ohio State University