Emphysema – Symptoms and Causes

What is emphysema?

Emphysema is a chronic disease of the lungs. It occurs most commonly in smokers, but it also occurs in people who regularly breathe in irritants. Emphysema damages alveoli, which are air sacs in the lungs. The air sacs weaken and gradually break, which lowers the surface area of the lungs and the amount of oxygen that can reach the bloodstream. This makes it trouble in breathing, particularly during exercise. Emphysema also makes lungs to lose their elasticity.

Emphysema is one of the two most common conditions that comes under the umbrella term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The other major COPD condition is chronic bronchitis. Emphysema is an irreversible condition, so treatment targets to slow its development and reducing symptoms.

What are the symptoms of emphysema?

Some people have emphysema for years without any symptoms. Some of its first signs are breathlessnesss or dyspnea and coughing, particularly during exercise or physical exertion. This continues to worsening until breathing is difficult all the time, even during rest.

Other symptoms include:

Affected people may have bluish-gray lips or fingernails due to shortage of oxygen. If this happens, look for medical attention urgently.

Who is at risk for emphysema?

According to the American Lung Association, in 2011 more than 4.5 million people in the United States had emphysema. Most of these people are over 65 years of age. Men and women are at about an same risk of developing the disease.

Smoking tobacco is the main reason behind emphysema. The more you smoke, larger you have the risk of developing emphysema. Smoking marijuana can also cause emphysema. According to the American Lung Association, smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans a year, and 80 percent of those deaths are caused by COPD, including emphysema. Exposure to secondhand smoke also increases your risk of developing emphysema.(1)

Moreove ,people who live or work in areas exposed to large pollution, chemical fumes, or lung irritants are at greater risk of getting the disease.

Genetics can play a role in a form of early development of emphysema, but this is rare.

How is emphysema diagnosed?

Your doctor will start by getting your background and medical history, asking specifically if you are a smoker and if you are living in areas having hazardous fumes or pollutants at work or at home.

Various tests can determine emphysema, including:

  • imaging tests, such as X-rays and CT scans, to monitor your lungs
  • blood tests, to find out how well your lungs are delivering oxygen
  • pulse oximetry, to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood
  • lung functioning tests, which usually involve blowing into a device called a spirometer to measure how much air your lungs can breathe in and out and how well your lungs transport oxygen into your bloodstream
  • arterial blood gas tests, to measure the amount of blood and carbon dioxide in your blood
  • electrocardiogram (ECG), to inspect heart function and eliminate heart disease

How is emphysema treated?

There is no cure for emphysema. Treatment focuses to minimize symptoms and slow down the progress of the disease with medications, therapies, or surgeries.

If you are a smoker, the first step in the treatment of emphysema is to stop smoking, either with medications or cold turkey.


Various medications can help treat the disease, which includes:

  • bronchodilators, to help clear or unblock air passages, making breathing easier and easing coughing and breathlessness
  • steroids, to relieve dyspnea or shortness of breath
  • antibiotics, to treat infections that can make the condition worse

All of these medication can be taken by oral route or inhaled.


Pulmonary therapy or modest exercise such as walking can strengthen breathing muscles and relieve symptoms, making it easier to breathe and be physically active. Yoga, tai chi, and deep breathing exercises can also help ease symptoms.

Oxygen therapy can help make breathing trouble-free . People with severe emphysema may need oxygen 24 hours a day.


Lung reduction surgery may be done to remove small parts of damaged lung, and a lung transplant can replace the complete lung. These are rare surgeries used only for people with severe emphysema.

Other treatments

People with emphysema are usually underweight. Eating foods containing vitamins A, C, and E, like fruits and vegetables, is suggested to improve your overall health.

Getting vaccinated against certain infections, such as pneumonia, can help prevent developing an infection that could trouble emphysema.

People with emphysema usually experience symptoms like anxiety and depression because they aren’t as active as they used to be. In some cases, they may be bound to an oxygen tank. Having a support group can help you connect with others who have the disease and share same experiences. This can help you feel that you aren’t alone in fighting the disease.

Prevention and outlook

Since emphysema is primarily caused by smoking tobacco, the best way to prevent it is to withhold from smoking. Also, don’t expose yourself from harmful chemicals and fumes, and heavy pollution.

The viewpoint for people with emphysema differs based on its severity. There is no cure for the disease, and it gets worse over time, but you can slow its development. As a rule, smoking cigarettes fastens the disease, so stopping it is necessary. Early detection of the disease is essential, because people with emphysema can get fatal conditions when the lungs and heart become damaged over time.

It’s necessary to stay healthy by eating healthy foods and regular exercising. Quitting smoking is also a necessary step in the treatment process. With the support of medications and therapies, you can live a longer and healthier life with emphysema.

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