Emphysema

Emphysema is a long-term disease of the lungs. It is a problem with the tiny air sacs that make up the lungs. These tiny elastic sacs should stretch to fill with air and then get smaller as air moves out of the lungs. Emphysema is caused by the destruction of these air sacs. This makes it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs. Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

  • Causes

    Emphysema is caused by damage to the air sacs of the lung. This damage may be caused by:

    • Smoking
    • Inhaling toxins or other irritants
    • Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD)—a genetic defect which can cause emphysema at an early age

  • Definition

    Emphysema is a long-term disease of the lungs. It is a problem with the tiny air sacs that make up the lungs. These tiny elastic sacs should stretch to fill with air and then get smaller as air moves out of the lungs. Emphysema is caused by the destruction of these air sacs. This makes it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs.


    Emphysema is a
    type of
    chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
    (COPD).

    Normal Lung vs Emphysemic Lung
    Nucleus factsheet image
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

  • Diagnosis

    The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

    Your doctor will need to test how impaired your lungs may be. This may be done with:

    • Lung function tests
      , called spirometry—to test the force of your breath
    • Arterial blood gas test—to test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood

    Your doctor may also need detailed pictures of your lungs. This may be done with:

    • Chest x-ray
    • CT Scan

  • Prevention

    To reduce your chance of getting emphysema, take these steps:

    • If you smoke, quit
    • Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
    • Avoid exposure to air pollution or irritants
    • Wear protective gear if exposed to irritants or toxins at work

  • Risk Factors

    Emphysema is more common in people over 40 years old. Other factors that may increase your risk of emphysema include:

    • Smoking
    • Long-term secondhand or passive smoke exposure
    • Family members with emphysema
    • Exposure to pollutants at work
    • History of frequent childhood lung infections

  • Symptoms

    Early symptoms include:

    • Coughing
    • Increased sputum production (mucus from deep in the lungs)
    • Wheezing
    • Shortness of breath with activity

    As the disease progresses, you may have:

    • Increased shortness of breath.
    • Rapid breathing.
    • Choking sensation when lying flat. You may need to prop up with pillows or sleep in a chair.
    • Fatigue.
    • Trouble concentrating.
    • Barrel chest, which is an increase in chest size.
    • Increased risk of serious lung infections.
    • Heart problems.
    • Coughing up thick and/or bloody mucus.
    • Weight loss.
    • Breathing through pursed lips.
    • Desire to lean forward to improve breathing.
    • More frequent flare-ups, which are periods of more severe symptoms.

  • Treatment

    There is no cure for emphysema. Treatment is focused on managing symptoms and improving your quality of life. .

    Treatment options may include one or more of the following: