Emphysema: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do in emphysema and COPD


Emphysema is a serious, ongoing lung condition that causes shortness of breath. You may also have a chronic cough. In people with emphysema, the tiny air sacs (alveoli) at the end of the airways in the lungs are damaged. When the air sacs are damaged, their walls break down. This makes the sacs become larger. These larger air sacs move less oxygen into the blood.

This causes shortness of breath that gets worse over time. Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can affect every aspect of life, particularly over time.



Smoking is the main cause of emphysema. Therefore, quitting smoking is the most important step in easing the symptoms. Treatment may slow the progression of COPD, but it can’t reverse the damage.

Who gets emphysema?

Over 3 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with emphysema. Over 11 million Americans have COPD. Emphysema is most common in men between the ages of 50 and 70.


Emphysema occurs when air sacs of the lungs known as alveoli become damaged and enlarged (at right).

What Causes Emphysema?

Most people with emphysema smoke or have smoked in the past. A very small proportion of people get emphysema because they inherited a faulty gene. This gene normally helps to keep the air sacs of the lungs healthy.

Other causes of emphysema include:

  • passive smoking, particularly when you are a baby
  • inhaling smoke from indoor fires used for heating and cooking.
  • exposure to industrial dust and chemicals
  • exposure to air pollutants

What are the symptoms of emphysema?

Someone can have emphysema for years without noticeable signs or symptoms. However, shortness of breath with physical activities is the first symptom to notice. 

Over time, the periods of breathlessness become more frequent. Eventually, people are continually short of breath, even when sitting or lying down.

People also often have:

Emphysema symptoms and diagnosis

How is emphysema diagnosed?

Several tests are used to make the diagnosis. These includes:



Your healthcare provider will ask you a lot of questions. This is about whether you have breathing difficulty, cough up mucus, or experience chest pain and wheezing. They will also ask you about past and currently smoking cigarettes. Your doctor in addition will also ask about inhaling irritants in the air at work or at home.

Your healthcare provider will examine you and listen to your chest. He will use a stethoscope when you breathe in and out. He will also listen to your heart beating. You may also have a CT scan of the chest and chest x-ray. However, CT scans of the chest are not use routinely to diagnose emphysema.

Most likely, your healthcare provider will order breathing tests. You will take a deep breath in and blow out, fast and hard into a machine. Because of collapse or narrowing of the breathing tubes in emphysema, the machine detects slowing of air when breathing out. 

How is emphysema treated?

There is no cure for emphysema, although it is treatable. The most important thing that you can do is not smoke and not breathe in “bad air.” Appropriate management can reduce symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Bronchodilator medications: These medicines relax the muscles around the airways. They are often used to treat asthma. Bronchodilators, given through hand-held inhalants, produce more immediate results and have fewer side effects than oral medications.

You should start a pulmonary rehabilitation program. It is the one of the best ways to improve your condition. They teaches you how to manage shortness of breath, quality of life, and ability to exercise.

Oxygen therapy for people whose lungs are not getting enough oxygen to the blood. These people can’t absorb enough oxygen from the outside air. Therefore, need to get more oxygen through a machine.

Some people may be suitable for surgery called lung volume reduction surgery. This gives some people improvement, at least in the short term. Lung transplantation can also provide symptom relief for some people.

Emphysema treatment

What are some tips for managing emphysema?

The best way to prevent or reduce further problems is to prevent respiratory infections by:

  • Practicing good hand washing methods.
  • Eating healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.
  • Brushing and flossing teeth daily, and using an antibacterial mouth rinse after meals.
  • Getting 7 – 8 hours of sleep each night.
  • Avoiding too much stress.
  • Keeping breathing equipment clean.
  • Keeping your house clean and free of dust.
  • Getting a flu shot every year.
  • Following a doctor-prescribed exercise program.
  • Avoiding irritants such as:
    • Cigarette smoke.
    • Exhaust fumes.
    • Cleaning products.
    • Dust.
    • Pollen.
    • Pet dander.

You should make sure that you get a written action plan from your healthcare provider and have it available in case your breathing gets worse. You should call your healthcare provider if you experience any major change in your breathing, 



About felclinic 584 Articles
Felix Ntifo is a Registered General Nurse who has so much passion to improve health care delivery. He founded FelClinic with the hope of making health information accessible to everyone who may not come in contact with him personally. "At felclinic.com we are very passionate about health and well-being of everyone. Our team is made up of professional doctors, nurses, midwives and lab technicians."

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