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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    Does smoking cause emphysema?

    I am a 42 year old mom and have been smoking regularly for the past 20 years. My children are worried and tell me that one day I will be diagnosed with emphysema. How likely is this?
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    Dr Peter Solin

    Respiratory & Sleep Medicine Physician

    Dr Peter Solin is a highly trained authority in sleep disorders medicine and respiratory medicine, having graduated from Melbourne University in 1987 and undertaken specialist … View Profile

    Unfortunately your children are correct! However emphysema may not be that obvious to you, even though you may have it. Firstly emphysema is a descriptive term relating to what happens to the spongy part of the lung when it is exposed to harmful agents such as cigarette smoke. The spongy part of the lung begins to degenerate, and its structure breaks down. This makes breathing less effective.

    Almost all people living in an industrialised urban environment will have a degree of such degeneration, but the vast majority won't have much in the way of symptoms such as cough for breathlessness. Toxic vapours and substances will accelerate this process such as those found in cigarette smoke. Some people are more susceptible to these effects, and some people are not. So the best strategy is to protect yourself from harmful vapours and smoke. 

    There is a lot of redundancy in our lungs, so that our lungs can take quite a bit of punishment before we start exhibiting symptoms such as cough or breathlessness. Once you do have symptoms, you will have far less reserve.

    At which point you may develop symptoms is therefore difficult to predict: for example in the next few years, or in 25 years!

    If you need some encouragement to stop smoking, then go and have breathing tests organised by your general practitioner to see what your lung function is at compared to what would be considered normal for your age and height.

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