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What You Need To Know About Emphysema

Medically reviewed by Jezreel Esguerra, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Kathy Kenny Ylaya Ngo · Updated Dec 23, 2022

What You Need To Know About Emphysema

What Is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that occurs when the lung’s air sacs are enlarged or damaged. This can lead to the weakening and breaking down of the surface area of the lungs, which makes it lose its elasticity thus making it unable to empty easily. 

This also reduces the amount of oxygen that reaches the bloodstream, which makes it hard to breathe especially when you are doing strenuous activities.

Emphysema is a disease that keeps on progressing. As time goes on, the lungs will lose their ability to absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide which will make breathing difficult. When this happens, you will feel shortness of breath all the time, and you will struggle to get enough air into your lungs. 

Here’s some of the most important emphysema facts that you should know.

What Causes Emphysema?

Emphysema happens when the lining of the sacs in the lungs becomes damaged beyond repair. This happens when the tissues between air sacs are destroyed which leads to air pockets forming in the lungs.

Once this happens, air becomes trapped in pouches of tissue that has been damaged and the lungs become larger. This makes breathing harder because now, there’s more space to fill.  

Emphysema is a respiratory disease normally found in people who frequently smoke. It is also found in people who often inhale airborne irritants such as secondhand tobacco smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes, dust, and marijuana smoke. 

Though rare, emphysema can also be caused by an inherited deficiency of a protein that protects the elastic structures in the lungs. This is called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency emphysema.

Tobacco smoke—otherwise known as cigarette smoke, however, is the biggest contributor in developing emphysema. Cigarette smoke destroys the lungs and obstructs airflow which leads to inflammation and irritation of the airways. This is how cigarette smoke affects the lungs.

emphysema facts

Risk Factors of Emphysema

There are several factors that increase the risk of developing emphysema—most of these have something to do with lifestyle. Hence, some people are at greater risk of contracting emphysema.

This includes smokers; the risks become bigger with the number of years they have been smoking as well as the number of cigarettes smoked. And it is not just the smokers who are at risk. Those who receive exposure to secondhand smoke are at a greater risk of getting the disease. Effects may become obvious between the ages of 40 and 60 years of age.

Constant exposure to dust, fumes, and pollution can also increase your chances of getting emphysema. When you inhale these irritants such as petroleum, gasoline, and dust on a regular basis, it will irritate the lungs and could lead to the air sacs being damaged. 

The last known risk factor of emphysema is genetics. Some people have alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency which is a protein deficiency. This is a genetic factor that can cause emphysema. 

Signs and Symptoms

Here’s one of the important emphysema facts you should know: initially, there may be no symptoms when you have emphysema. 

When you do feel the symptoms, what you need to look out for are:

  • A cough that produces lots of mucus
  • Wheezing or a whistling sound when you breathe
  • Frequent coughing
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Tightness in your chest

If you are prone to  respiratory infections like the cold and the flu, it’s possible that you have emphysema. 

Complications of Emphysema

There are three potential complications when you have emphysema. You can have a collapsed lung when your lungs develop large air pockets which could potentially burst resulting into the lungs deflating. 

Another potential complication is developing a heart problem. When you have emphysema, it reduces the number of capillaries in your heart and lowers the oxygen levels in your bloodstream. This causes the heart to pump harder to transport the blood to your lungs which causes a strain on the heart. 

But the most common complication of emphysema is pneumonia, which is an infection of the lungs. 

Treatment of Emphysema

With all that you need to know about emphysema facts, one of the harsh truths about it is that as of now, there is no known cure to emphysema

The body cannot repair the damaged lung tissues. The purpose of the treatment is simply to allow the person to live more comfortably with the condition. The treatment controls the symptoms and prevents it from worsening, with as minimal side effects as possible. 

Treatment can improve shortness of breath. It also reduces the risk of exacerbation or lung infection. There are medications that can be used such as inhaled bronchodilator medications which make the release of air faster. This makes it easier for someone who has emphysema to breathe. 

Anyone afflicted with emphysema can also undergo a pulmonary rehabilitation program which includes breathing exercises to help strengthen the muscles used for breathing. This rehab program also includes exercises for the rest of the body. 

A change in lifestyle is also recommended since you may suffer from weight loss or malnutrition when you have emphysema. Ensuring that you stay away from second hand smoking is also a must. In addition, experts strongly recommend avoiding air pollutants at home or in the workplace. 

If you have bacterial infections, you may also request for antibiotics. Also, getting the flu and pneumococcal vaccines will help stabilize your condition. 

As a last resort, surgery can be performed to remove the damaged area of the lung or even a lung transplant. However, this is only recommended in the worst situations. Still, the best way to handle emphysema is to quit smoking if you are a smoker. 

Key Takeaways

Though emphysema can be a life-altering disease, it does not mean that you can’t enjoy life once you are diagnosed with the condition. There are many ways to control it, so that you can still live a good life. Knowing the emphysema facts above can help you in the prevention and treatment of the condition.

Learn more about Emphysema here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Jezreel Esguerra, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Kathy Kenny Ylaya Ngo · Updated Dec 23, 2022

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