Emphysema and Addiction

The lungs are a sensitive set of organs that suffer greatly when exposed to irritation, because regular irritation can lead to conditions like emphysema.

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    The Relationship Between Addiction and Emphysema

    Emphysema is a serious lung disease that kills more than 120,000 Americans every year. While not all cases of emphysema are caused by substance abuse or addiction, a very significant number of cases are.

    The Lungs

    As we breathe, air flows through our trachea (windpipe), down through our bronchial tubes into the lungs, and then it gets absorbed by our alveoli (tiny air sacs). The alveoli expand as you breathe in and transfer the oxygen into the blood. They then compress to force out the remaining carbon dioxide. Healthy lungs contain around 300 million alveoli, and they are responsible for allowing us to breathe normally.


    This lung disease damages the alveoli and reduces their ability to fully expand and contract to move air. As more alveoli are destroyed, bronchial tubes that lead to them lose structural support and begin to collapse. As these key parts of the lungs fail, air gets stuck in the lungs, giving people with emphysema a barrel-chested appearance. This condition falls under the group of lung diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Over 3 million Americans suffer from emphysema and 11 million have a disease associated with COPD.

    The driving factor behind the damage is a loss of elasticity. Our lungs need to expand and contract in order to receive new oxygen. When someone is suffering from emphysema, it means the tissue in their alveoli is no longer as elastic due to damage from irritation. Without the ability to stretch and return to normal size, the alveoli can’t effectively receive and absorb oxygen, which leads to a number of symptoms.

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    Emphysema Symptoms

    • Coughing
    • Wheezing
    • Shortness of breath
    • Chest tightness
    • Chronic fatigue

    The Cause

    While emphysema can arise from a genetic predisposition and environmental conditions, it is most commonly linked with smoking tobacco.


    Smoking tobacco is the primary culprit in the occurrence of this condition in the US. Not all smokers suffer from the disease, but around 50% show signs of obstructions in their lungs. Inhaling smoke in any capacity can damage the lungs, but the intentional exposure to cigarette smoke is especially dangerous.

    With the naked eye, we can’t see the billions of tiny particles that make up cigarette smoke. This mixture of  irritating particles entering the lungs causes inflammation leading to serious long-term damage. The regular exposure of someone with a smoking habit irritates the alveoli in the lungs and eventually starts destroying them, leading to the large air pockets in the lungs.

    Other Drugs

    The legal availability and extremely addictive nature of cigarettes puts them at the top of the list of causes, but other substances can cause emphysema as well. Researchers have found that people who burn and smoke cocaine, crack cocaine, and heroin also experience increased rates of emphysema.

    Heroin seems the most linked to the development of emphysema in people using illegal substances. The exact reason isn’t fully understood, but imperfections in the heroin would cause similar irritation to cigarettes.

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      As marijuana becomes more common throughout the US, researchers are making a more concerted effort to study its effects, especially in the long term. Many studies have been built around observing the impact smoking marijuana has on the lungs, but no major conclusive evidence has been discovered. Many of the studies ran into issues because their sampled population often smoked cigarettes alongside marijuana. Using cigarettes obscures the data from marijuana, because researchers already know that cigarettes do predispose people to emphysema.

      Other studies found that, while marijuana wasn’t linked directly to emphysema, it did cause some irritation throughout the lungs. Not enough to destroy tissue, but no inflammation is good inflammation when concerning the lungs.

      Emphysema and Addiction

      Cigarettes are at the top of the list of addicting habits. Nicotine itself is recognized among the most addictive chemicals on the planet, and the near ubiquitous availability throughout most places in the world is staggering considering the health concerns associated with them.

      If you or a loved one struggle with a substance use disorder that may be causing you pain in the form of a lung disorder, contact a treatment provider today. The path to recovery may seem daunting, but compassionate care is available to help.

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