Q & A Library
Do Non-Smokers Get Emphysema?
My mother has had a hiatal hernia for many years and now has been diagnosed with emphysema although she never smoked. Could the hernia or the medication she takes for it cause the lung trouble?
Answer (Published 3/18/2008)
Neither your mother's hiatal hernia nor her medication could have brought on the problems with her lungs. Emphysema is a progressive disease caused by damage to the small air sacs in the lungs, which causes them to lose their elasticity. As a result, air gets trapped in the sacs making it difficult to exhale and leading to shortness of breath. Cigarette smoking is the most common cause, but exposure to secondhand smoke, chemical fumes, indoor and outdoor pollution can also be to blame. Sometimes a rare genetic enzyme deficiency is responsible, but this usually is associated with cases diagnosed before age 50 (and earlier for smokers).
Emphysema typically is treated with bronchodilators and corticosteroids to improve breathing. Physicians may also recommend using low-flow oxygen during exercise or for those who have night-time breathing problems. Pulmonary rehabilitation may help improve tolerance for exercise. Beyond that, treatment options are few. Here are some suggestions to protect the lungs from further damage:
Andrew Weil, M.D.
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