In 1987, Jerome Geronimo collapsed while on the job as a senior security officer. His co-workers brought him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with emphysema. "My father was totally devastated after hearing his prognosis. He lost his job and career in the security agency, and it was a severe blow for him because he was reduced to helplessness," said Jerome's son, Niko.
For the family, Jerome's illness became a difficult and daily challenge. They not only had to deal with financial difficulties, but the family also had to adjust to the complications brought about by Jerome’s emphysema. He was confined for three months, and was hospitalized several more times afterwards. At home, Jerome had difficulty sleeping because he could not breathe when lying down. He also could not go out much as he would get asthma attacks whenever he breathed polluted air.
The lung problem
It is hard to believe that one of the top causes of mortality in the country is easily preventable. Emphysema, a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a serious, long-term disease caused by the loss of elasticity of the lungs. Jerome's main cause of emphysema: his chronic smoking, a habit he had since the age of 16.
In a healthy person, the air sacs in the lungs expand and contract during breathing allowing air to enter and exit the lungs freely. When afflicted with emphysema, the air sacs are damaged and they lose the ability to contract back, and this permanent dilation of the air sacs makes exhaling difficult.
A person with emphysema may first experience frequent bouts of colds and persistent cough with phlegm. Eventually, the symptoms could progress to increasing episodes of shortness of breath, the main complaint of those suffering this affliction.
"COPD can manifest from the very mild to the most severe of symptoms. In the most severe state, you experience air hunger where you are not satisfied with your breathing and there are complications in the heart and other organ systems,” says Manuel Jorge, M.D., an associate professor and pulmonary specialist at the UP College of Medicine. Other symptoms include fever, dizziness, loss of appetite, weight loss, and swelling of the feet and ankles.
Managing the risks
Although the condition can occur due to genetic or infectious conditions, most of the time, emphysema is caused by environmental factors that people are exposed to over a certain period. Some of the most common environmental causes include:
It is undeniable that the major cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking. In the Philippines, smoking kills an estimate of 87,600 Filipinos every year, as seen in the data gathered by the Department of Health and the World Health Organization. The Philippine College of Chest Physicians also says that lung diseases, including emphysema, are the fourth leading cause of death in the country.
• Air pollutants
Aside from smoking, emphysema may develop due to exposure to air pollutants and to certain irritants (or particulates) like coal and asbestos. Some are predisposed because of an inherited defect in a factor in the blood serum, which lowers the defenses of the body against infections that causes lung damage. Other risks include susceptibility to chest infections such as pneumonia that can be life-threatening.