5 ways to prevent emphysema

October 9, 2015

Being unable to breath is one of the worst feelings. Emphysema is a crippling disease that can bring you to your knees—fortunately there are steps you can take that may prevent it.

5 ways to prevent emphysema

What is emphysema?

  • Like old or broken party balloons, the millions of air sacs in your lungs can't work properly if they've been damaged by tobacco smoke or environmental pollutants. The result is emphysema.
  • You feel tired and short of breath because the sacs can no longer force stale air out of your lungs. Protecting your airways from cigarette smoke — yours and other people's — is a top priority for prevention. Here's how that and other proven strategies can keep you breathing easy.

1. Quit smoking

  • About 90 percent of people with emphysema are smokers. If you smoke, your chances of developing emphysema are one in four.
  • Cigarette smoke paralyzes the tiny hairs, or cilia, that normally sweep germs and irritating chemicals and particles out of your airways. Instead, irritants invade the millions of air sacs in your lungs and ultimately destroy them. Cigar and pipe smokers are also at risk, as are marijuana smokers.
  • In one Australian study, researchers found that habitual marijuana smokers showed signs of lung damage years sooner than cigarette smokers. Other studies suggest that a single joint is as destructive as 2 1/2 to five cigarettes.
  • Quit, and the risk of future damage drops. Nine months after your last cigarette, the cilia will be functioning normally again. And while quitting will not reverse existing damage, it will slow the progression of the disease.

2. Avoid second-hand smoke

  • Breathing in other people's smoke on a regular basis—at home, on the job or out with friends—can damage healthy lungs and raise the risk of emphysema attacks if you already have this condition.
  • When researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia scanned the lungs of 61 adults, they found that 35 percent of those who were exposed to second-hand smoke regularly showed early signs of lung damage.

3. Pay attention to air quality

  • If you already have emphysema, you can cut your risk of an attack by avoiding fumes from paint, perfumes and the smell of burning candles and incense. Even cooking odours can make you cough or wheeze.
  • Keep the humidity in your home between 40 and 50 percent (you can buy a device that measures humidity at the hardware store) and check air filters on your furnace and air conditioning systems regularly—as often as monthly—and clean or change them when they look dirty so the air stays irritant-free.

4. Skip bacon, hot dogs and other cured meats

  • Eating cured meats at least once a day raised smokers' risk of emphysema and other progressive lung problems 2.64 times higher than that of those who ate these foods only a few times a year, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study of nearly 43,000 men.
  • Nitrites in these meats generate cell-damaging particles called free radicals in the body. People with higher levels of free radicals are more susceptible to lung damage.

5. Eat more fibre

  • Getting about 27 grams of fibre a day translated into a 15 percent drop in risk for emphysema and other lung problems compared to eating just 9.5 grams a day, according to a study of nearly 12,000 people.
  • People who got a lot of their fibre from fruit cut their risk further—by 27 percent. The reason? Fibre may simply be a marker for a diet that includes more fruits and vegetables. It's possible that the real protectors are the antioxidants in produce, which protect lungs from damage caused by free radicals.
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