Treatment for emphysema can take many forms. Different approaches to treatment are available. Generally, a doctor will prescribe these treatments in a step-wise approach, depending on the severity of your condition.
Stop smoking: Although not strictly a treatment, most doctors make this recommendation for people with emphysema (and everyone). Quitting smoking may halt the progression of the disease and should improve the function of the lungs to some extent. A doctor may be able to prescribe medications to help in breaking the addiction and can also recommend behavioral therapies, such as support groups. You and your doctor should work to find an approach that results in the successful end to cigarette smoking and, in the process, the beginning of improved lung function and quality of life.
Bronchodilating medications: These medications, which cause the air passages to open more fully and allow better air exchange, are usually the first medications that a doctor will prescribe for emphysema. In very mild cases, bronchodilators may be used only as needed, for episodes of shortness of breath.
The most common bronchodilator for mild cases of emphysema is albuterol (Proventil or Ventolin). It acts quickly, and 1 dose usually provides relief for 4-6 hours. Albuterol is most commonly available as a metered-dose inhaler or MDI, and this is the form that will be used most often for mild emphysema, with intermittent shortness of breath. When used for this purpose, some people refer to their albuterol inhaler as a "rescue" medication. It acts to rescue them from a more serious attack of shortness of breath.
If you have some degree of shortness of breath at rest, a doctor may prescribe the albuterol to be given at regularly scheduled intervals, either through the MDI, or by nebulization. Nebulization involves breathing in liquid medication that has been vaporized by a continuous flow of air (in much the same way a whole-room vaporizer causes liquid droplets to enter the air by the flow of air through water). Nebulized albuterol may be prescribed once scheduled doses via inhaler are no longer adequate.
Ipratropium bromide (Atrovent) is another bronchodilating medication that is used for relatively mild emphysema. Similar to albuterol, it is available in both an inhaler and as a liquid for nebulization. Unlike albuterol, however, ipratropium bromide is usually given in scheduled intervals. Therefore, it is not usually prescribed for "rescue" purposes. Atrovent lasts longer than albuterol, however, and often provides greater relief.
Methylxanthines (Theophylline) and other bronchodilating medications are available that have varying properties that may make them useful in certain cases. Another fairly common medication is available in a tablet form. Theophylline (Theo-Dur, Uniphyl) is a medication given orally. It can have a sustained effect on keeping air passageways open. Theophylline levels must be monitored by blood tests. Too much theophylline can produce an overdose; too little, and there will not be enough relief of shortness of breath. In addition, other drugs can interact with theophylline, altering the blood level without warning. For this reason, doctors now prescribe theophylline very carefully. If you take theophylline, take the medication as prescribed and check with your doctor before starting any new medication.
Steroid medications: They decrease inflammation in the body. They are used for this effect in the lung and elsewhere and have been shown to be of some benefit in emphysema. However, not all people will respond to steroid therapy. Steroids may either be given orally or inhaled through an MDI or another form of inhaler.
Antibiotics: These medications are often prescribed for people with emphysema who have increased shortness of breath. Even when the chest x-ray does not show pneumonia or evidence of infection, people treated with antibiotics tend to have shorter episodes of shortness of breath. It is suspected that infection may play a role in an acute bout of emphysema, even before the infection worsens into a pneumonia or acute bronchitis.
Oxygen: If you have shortness of breath and go to a hospital’s emergency department, you often are given oxygen. It may even be necessary to give oxygen by placing a tube in your windpipe and allowing a machine to assist your breathing. In some cases, it may be necessary for you to receive oxygen at home as well. There are home-based oxygen tanks available and portable units that enable you to be mobile and engage in normal day-to-day activities.