What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a pulmonary disease caused by overextended alveoli – the air sacs where gas exchange occurs in the lungs. This overextension results from the destruction of spongy lung tissue by airborne irritants like cigarette smoke, as well as other factors. The loss of air sac elasticity hampers both airflow and blood flow, reducing the lungs’ effectiveness, thus triggering emphysema symptoms. Emphysema patients suffer from difficulty breathing and other respiratory ailments. 

Emphysema is sometimes grouped with chronic bronchitis as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. COPD can be life-threatening, if not properly identified and managed.


Emphysema symptoms can be hard to detect because it comes on gradually and has only one primary symptom: shortness of breath. This condition will only worsen with time. See your physician immediately if any of the following are happening to you:

  • You lose your breath while undertaking simple daily chores (e.g., climbing the stairs, walking to the mailbox)
  • You’re groggy or lacking sharpness even after a good night’s sleep
  • Your lips or fingernails take on a blue or gray tinge after physical activity.

Emphysema is a potentially serious threat to your health. In addition to labored breathing, emphysema has been linked to higher incidences of collapsed lung, heart disease, and the growth of empty spaces or bullae in the lungs. That is why it’s so crucial to be aware of any emphysema symptoms and report them to your physician right away. 

Emphysema symptoms might be mild or severe. Since one of the signs of emphysema is shortness of breath even at rest, you might subconsciously begin to avoid tasks or activities that lead to shortness of breath.

Moderate and Mild Symptoms

You might experience moderate or mild symptoms of emphysema. One common symptom is an emphysema cough.

Symptoms of mild emphysema:

  • Tightness in chest
  • Chest pain
  • Chronic cough
  • Wheezing

A chronic cough is a cough that does not go away. You might feel chest pain or tightness in your chest when you exercise.

Severe Symptoms

Left untreated, emphysema symptoms tend to steadily get worse.

Severe emphysema symptoms:

  • Weight loss
  • Sex issues
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced appetite
  • Sadness
  • Blue nail beds
  • Bluish lips
  • Sleep issues
  • Regular lung infections
  • Headaches in the morning


  • Nutritional Therapy—Nutritional therapy helps you manage your weight to support recovery from emphysema. Doctors often suggest losing weight for people in the early stage of the disease and gaining weight for those in the late stage.


  • Lung volume reduction surgery
  • Lung Transplant
  • Lung volume reduction surgery—For people with lung damage, surgery can help remove small wedges of damaged tissue that cause breathing difficulties. After the procedure, healthy lung tissue expands for better functionality and improved breath capacity.
  • Lung transplant—A lung transplant is a surgical procedure in which an individual's diseased lungs are replaced with healthy donor lungs. This allows the recipient to breathe properly.


The chief cause of emphysema is the repeated inhalation of airborne irritants such as: 

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Marijuana smoke
  • Dust and toxic fumes
  • Air pollution

If you're wondering what causes emphysema other than the sustained inhalation of airborne irritants, there are other factors in developing the disease including airway reactivity, age, and sex – emphysema is more common in men. In rare cases, an inherited enzyme deficiency can also play a role, but is not among the common causes of emphysema. 

Risk Factors

There are several factors that make the development of emphysema more likely:

  • Smoking: Emphysema is most common among cigarette smokers but can also develop in connection with pipe and cigar tobacco. 
  • Aging: Emphysema symptoms often manifest for the first time between ages 40 and 60.
  • Exposure to dust, fumes, toxic gases – even secondhand smoke: Any type of lung pollution increases the risk of emphysema. 
  • Air Pollution—Emphysema is caused by contaminated air and other damage to your lungs. Pollutants such as paint fumes, vehicle exhaust, chemicals, and some perfumes can irritate your lungs and exacerbate emphysema.

Preventing emphysema is largely a matter of avoiding airborne irritants. That means no smoking and wearing a mask when working in confined spaces with dust or other floating debris.


If you develop emphysema, you may experience complications. These complications can be serious.

Possible effects of emphysema:

  • Heart issues—Emphysema is a disease that can make your heart weaker. Your emphysema might place additional pressure on your arteries, which can cause heart problems.
  • Collapsed lung—Collapsed lungs are uncommon but can be life-threatening for people with severe emphysema because of their compromised lungs.
  • Big tears in your lungs—People with emphysema sometimes develop large holes in their lungs. These big empty spaces are called bullae.


If you see your doctor with concerns about emphysema, he or she will ask about your symptoms, lifestyle habits such as smoking, and family medical history. To complete the emphysema diagnosis, he or she may also arrange:

  • Imaging tests: These might include a chest X-ray or CT scan. 
  • Lab tests: Bloodwork can establish how effectively your respiratory system is oxygenating the blood.
  • Lung function tests: Physicians use a medical device called a spirometer to measure lung capacity, airflow, and the rate at which gas exchange is taking place.

Extensive testing is necessary to diagnose emphysema, and to understand the comprehensive picture of the condition. Emphysema cannot be diagnosed on symptoms alone, and often testing helps to rule out other conditions.

Emphysema is a serious condition, and cannot be cured or reversed. The earlier a patient can have the condition diagnosed, the sooner a treatment plan can be put in place, which helps to slow down or stop the current damage being done to the lungs and respiratory system. Contact your primary care physician if you are experiencing symptoms.


There is no cure for emphysema but its symptoms can be addressed and controlled. When examining how to treat emphysema in a patient, there are two primary avenues of response: medical treatment and lifestyle change. 

Medical Emphysema Treatments

  • Bronchodilators: A bronchodilator is a vaporous medication that opens the lung’s air passages, making it easier to breathe. 
  • Inhaled steroids: Steroidal medications can provide temporary relief of air sac inflammation and shortness of breath.
  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics are used to treat associated bacterial infections, including pneumonia.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation: A comprehensive approach to managing emphysema, pulmonary rehabilitation involves exercise, improved diet, and breathing exercises and strategies. 
  • Supplemental oxygen: Medically delivered air supplies can boost oxygen levels in the bloodstream.
  • Surgery: Surgical relief may be an option in especially severe cases. Procedures include lung volume reduction surgery, for removing diseased tissue, and, in extreme cases, lung transplantation.

Lifestyle Changes

  • Quit smoking: If you smoke, the most effective step you can take to manage emphysema is to quit tobacco products. 
  • Avoid airborne irritants of all kinds: Tobacco smoke isn’t the only form of lung pollution. Paint fumes, car exhaust, perfumes and colognes, and even cooking odors can irritate the alveoli. 
  • Increase physical activity: Regular exercise can strengthen lung capacity and partially offset breathing dysfunction.
  • Avoid cold air in winter: Cold air can trigger bronchial spasms, which place additional stress on your breathing.
  • Play it safe with respiratory infections: Avoid persons with communicable colds and flues, and make sure you receive flu shots or pneumonia vaccinations. 


Emphysema can’t be cured but it can be coped with. Enlist the aid of family members, friends, and your Baptist Health physician to develop a comprehensive plan for managing your condition and limiting its impact on your daily activities.

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