24 June 2008

Now it's Amy's lungs

Singer Amy Winehouse, infamous for her rowdy lifestyle, has been told she has an irreversible lung disease.

Singer Amy Winehouse, infamous for her rowdy lifestyle, has been told she has an irreversible lung disease.

Last week British doctors diagnosed the 24-year-old with emphysema – a condition signifying irreparable damage to the lungs, which leaves sufferers struggling for breath, some so severe that they become dependent on oxygen supplies.

The Grammy award-winning singer was rushed to hospital after suffering a fit at her home in North London last week, according to reports.

Cigarette smoke is the most common cause of emphysema. However in Winehouse's case, doctors believe the abuse of crack cocaine combined with cigarette smoke contributed to her condition.

Irreversible condition
Emphysema is the result of damage to the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. The lung damage is irreversible, and this disease is therefore labelled as a chronic obstructive pulmonary (lung) disease (COPD).

Symptoms Winehouse may be experiencing include shortness of breath, chronic coughing, wheezing and a decreased ability to exercise.

Smoke and other pollutants are thought to cause the release of chemicals from within the lungs that damage the walls of the air sacs. This damage becomes worse over time, and people with this disease have air sacs in the lungs that are unable to fill with fresh air. As a result, the body does not get the oxygen it needs.

This may lead to various other complications in the body, including recurrent respiratory infections, enlargement and strain on the right side of the heart, an increased red blood cell count and death.

What's awaiting Amy?
At the young age of 24, Winehouse has already lost 30 percent of her lung capacity and doctors warn that she could end up in a wheelchair within a month if she fails to stop using drugs. She is also at risk of having to wear a permanent oxygen mask if she doesn't follow medical advice.

Winehouse commented on the news of her diagnosis by telling her father, Mitch Winehouse: "Don't worry about me, dad. I know I've got to stop taking drugs now."

Although emphysema cannot be cured per se, various treatments can alleviate symptoms. Smoking cessation is the most important and effective treatment - it can stop the progression of lung damage. In addition, there are also medications that can improve breathing.

Bouts of breathlessness can be treated by using oxygen ventilators, and for patients with severe emphysema, a lung transplant is also an option.

The singer's life has been in constant turmoil, with reports of her battle with drugs, a history of bulimia, and her husband, Blake Fielder Civil, 26, awaiting trial for assault in prison.

- (Health24, Sapa, Medline Plus, June 2008)

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