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Young Pop Star's Emphysema Startles Experts

But Amy Winehouse's reported diagnosis is a reminder of the damage drugs or cigarettes can do to lungs, they say

MONDAY, June 23 (HealthDay News) -- The shocking revelation by her father that 24-year-old British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse may have a mild form of emphysema leaves experts with more questions than answers.

It's possible that Winehouse, in addition to her well-publicized use of drugs and cigarettes, has a congenital condition that contributed to her current crisis, one lung doctor said.

"If you see emphysema in a young person, you have to think of that," said Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, added, "Generally, we don't really see emphysema until a person is in their 40s, but in a small number of people it could occur much earlier, especially in someone who smoked a long time."

"There's also the possibility -- not a probability -- that she's got a genetic variation. Five percent of people with emphysema have a genetic predisposition," Edelman said.

According to the Associated Press, Winehouse apparently collapsed at her north London home last Monday and was admitted into a London hospital, where she has been all week.

Winehouse's father, Mitch Winehouse, told the London Sunday Mirror that his daughter was told she would have to wear an oxygen mask unless she stops smoking drugs and cigarettes.

However, he has since modified that statement. According to MTV News, Mitch Winehouse told BBC 1 Radio on Monday that his daughter fainted at her home on June 16 and has been diagnosed with what he called "a small amount of emphysema." The soul singer's lungs do show a small amount of scarring, but her illness has not progressed "too far," her father said.

"It's not irreparable. Really, she can't even smoke anymore, let alone that other thing. With patience, her lungs will recover completely. She's responding very well to treatment, she's flourishing," he said.

The singer's U.S. publicist, Tracey Miller, agreed, saying on Monday that Winehouse is "showing early signs of what could lead to emphysema but is reacting well to treatment."

What is well-known is that Winehouse has a long history of drug abuse, including crack cocaine.

According to Horovitz, smoking crack can also result in a condition known as "acute crack lung," which shows up from one hour to 48 hours after smoking large quantities of crack. "It's temporary, but it can cause a certain amount of destruction of the lung tissue. But if you have enough [episodes], it adds up to a lot of lung disease," Horovitz explained.

Emphysema involves damage to the air sacs or alveoli in the lungs, reducing the amount of oxygen the body can take in. Symptoms typically include shortness of breath and a chronic cough, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The most common cause is smoking. The disease, once entrenched, cannot be reversed. The condition can be stabilized, however, if a person stops smoking.

Still, "lung units or alveoli do not come back," Horovitz said.

Symptoms can be treated with bronchodilators, steroids, inhalers and, in a worst-case scenario, oxygen, Horovitz added.

According to AP, Winehouse's lung capacity is at 70 percent. Physicians generally conduct pulmonary function tests by taking into account height, weight, ethnic group and smoking history. They then calculate a predicted lung function.

Healthy lung function for a person with Winehouse's demographic would probably hover around 80 percent or more, Horovitz said.

"This is not moderate or severe emphysema. It's mild emphysema," Horovitz stressed. "But with the natural aging process, when you're 54, you're going to have moderate to severe emphysema."

The singer's career and young life have been marked by both highs and lows. Her 2006 album, Back to Black won five Grammy awards, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. But her alcohol and drug dependencies have been widely reported.

According to MTV News, Mitch Winehouse told the BBC that she is currently "smothered" in nicotine patches to help her kick the smoking habit.

Winehouse understands that "the only thing that can go into her lungs right now is fresh air," her father said. "She doesn't have emphysema, she has traces of it. Obviously, if she doesn't quit smoking, it's going to get worse."

More information

Visit the American Lung Association for more on emphysema.

SOURCES: Len Horovitz, M.D., pulmonary specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Norman Edelman, M.D., chief medical officer, American Lung Association; Associated Press; MTV News

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