The alveoli are microscopic, balloon-like structures in the lungs that play a crucial role in respiration. If they are damaged, they may be able to self-repair, but medical attention is key to preventing complications.
This article describes what the alveoli do, how they can be harmed, and the risk factors. It also looks into treatment options.
These microscopic, balloon-shaped parts of the lungs transfer oxygen into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide out of it.
When someone inhales, their alveoli fill up with oxygen. When they exhale, their alveoli decompress, releasing carbon dioxide.
Any damage to the alveoli can affect how well a person breaths. It can create difficulty getting oxygen into the blood and carbon dioxide out of it.
As a result, harmful chemicals can accumulate, and the body may not have enough oxygen to function optimally.
COPD is an umbrella term for health conditions that limit airflow in the lungs and damage lung tissue and alveoli.
Other causes of damage
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS): This noncancerous cause of swelling in the lungs
stems frominflammation and the accumulation of fluid in the alveolar space.
- Asthma: This condition affects around
15–20%of people in developed countries. It leads to inflammation and air being trapped within the alveoli. This constricts the airways.
- Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF): This type of scarring in the lungs, including the alveoli, has no clear cause. Doctors distinguish the features of the scarring under a microscope to
rule outany other diagnosis.
There is also
Various factors can increase the risk of developing a health condition that damages the alveoli.
For example, the
Other potential causes of ARDS include:
- a severe chest injury
- accidentally inhaling vomit, smoke, or toxic chemicals
- near drowning
If smoking causes scarring, the diagnosis is not IPF but “combined pulmonary fibrosis and emphysema.”
- exposure to some metals
- exposure to some woods
- exposure to dust
- genetic factors
For example, someone with COPD may experience:
- shortness of breath
- a cough
- chest tightness
IPF can cause similar symptoms, such as shortness of breath and a cough, as well as fatigue.
Asthma causes wheezing and increased mucus production, which
The alveoli can
Also, the rate of repair needs to exceed the rate of destruction for the area to recover. For this reason, treating the underlying health condition is key.
Scientists have not yet found a cure for COPD, ARDS, asthma, or IPF. Treatments for these conditions aim to slow their progression and relieve the symptoms.
Other approaches may include:
- supplemental oxygen
- noninvasive positive pressure ventilation
- pulmonary rehabilitation
- surgical interventions, such as a transplant
At present, no single drug-based treatment can prevent or manage ARDS.
- have mechanical ventilation
- receive medical attention at the standards of an intensive care unit
- are monitored and receive diuretics to prevent fluid overload
- receive nutritional support
Doctors may also prescribe antibiotics if the cause of ARDS is a bacterial infection.
According to the Global Initiative for Asthma, the initial treatment is a combination of a low-dose inhaled corticosteroid and a bronchodilator.
Doctors may also prescribe anti-inflammatories, such as inhaled steroids. They may prescribe beclomethasone (Beclovent, Qvar).
Medications such as pirfenidone (Esbriet) and nintedanib (Ofev)
Over time, the symptoms may affect breathing, and the treatment may include oxygen therapy. In severe cases, a doctor may recommend a lung transplant.
Doctors may recommend these strategies for managing the underlying causes of the damage.
A healthcare professional
- quitting smoking and reducing exposure to secondhand smoke
- reducing exposure to other toxins
- using any inhaler properly
- receiving the annual influenza vaccine
On average, people with ARDS require ventilation for 7–14 days.
After this period, a person may require a tracheostomy, which involves receiving ventilation through a surgical incision in the neck. However, most people with ARDS do not require long-term ventilation and regain most of their lung function.
Pulmonary rehabilitation can help address any muscle weakness.
Using an inhaler is key, as is recognizing triggers,
- viral respiratory tract infections
- gastroesophageal reflux disease
- chronic sinusitis
- environmental allergens
Doctors also recommend maintaining moderate body weight, to help make asthma easier to manage.
Asthma may predispose a person to obesity, both conditions may simply co-occur, or obesity
Avoiding any exposure to tobacco smoke and self-monitoring are also important factors in preventing the progression and flares of asthma.
Similar advice applies to people with IPF. According to a
- stop smoking, if this applies
- avoid exposure to harmful gases
- exercise regularly
The outlook for someone with alveolar damage depends on:
- the cause of the damage
- the response to treatment
- the extent to which a person applies the management strategies
The 4-year survival rate for people with COPD varies from
The outlook for people with ARDS has improved over the last few years, due to advancements in mechanical ventilation and earlier antibiotic administration. Mortality rates are now around
Without effective treatment, asthma can lead to
Alveoli are microscopic, balloon-like structures in the lungs that play an essential role in the respiratory system.
Over time, the alveoli may be able to repair any damage. But various health conditions can cause sustained damage, such as COPD, ARDS, asthma, and IPF. Each requires a different treatment.