Written by David Heitz | Published on September 5, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 5, 2013

What Is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a disease of the lungs. It occurs most often in smokers. It also occurs in people who regularly breathe in irritants. Emphysema destroys the lungs’ spherical air sacs. Because of this, it also reduces the amount of oxygen that can reach the bloodstream. Emphysema also causes the lungs to permanently lose their elasticity.

Emphysema is one of two of the most common conditions that fall under the umbrella term Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). The other major COPD condition is chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema is an irreversible condition. However, treatment may slow its progression (American Lung Association, 2013).

What Causes Emphysema?

Smoking tobacco is the primary cause of emphysema. The more a person smokes, the higher his or her risk.

Smoking marijuana also can lead to emphysema.

Other major causes include air pollution or long-term exposure to environmental hazards in the workplace.

Rarely, genetics can play a factor in a form of emphysema with early onset.

Who Is at Risk for Emphysema?

In 2008, almost 4 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with emphysema. Most people who develop the disease are middle aged and older. Men and women are at equal risk (American Lung Association, 2010).

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Surgeon General's Office, smokers increase their risk of developing emphysema by as much as 13 times (HHS, 2004). Caucasians have a higher occurrence than other races.

People who live in highly polluted areas or who work around lung irritants also are at higher risk. Exposure to second-hand smoke also increases the risk.

What Are the Symptoms of Emphysema?

One of the first signs of emphysema is shortness of breath, especially during exercise. This continues to get worse until eventually breathing is difficult at all times. Coughing occurs as well.

Exhaustion, weight loss, depression, and a fast heartbeat are other symptoms. Affected people may develop bluish-gray lips or fingernails. If this happens, seek medical attention immediately.


There are several ways to diagnosis emphysema. Doctors usually ask about a patient's background and whether or not the patient is a smoker. They will also ask about environmental factors.

Various tests can detect emphysema. These include breathing exercises to test lung capacity, like blowing into a spirometer. X-rays and CT scans can determine the severity of damage in the lungs. Blood tests measure lung function by showing the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body.

How Is Emphysema Treated?

There is no cure for emphysema. But there are medications, therapies, and surgeries that can improve the lives of sufferers.

Medication is usually recommended to help sufferers quit smoking.

Other treatments include antibiotics, which battle infections that can make the condition worse. Bronchodilators help to open air passages and make breathing easier. Steroids can alleviate symptoms of asthma. They can be taken orally or inhaled. Oxygen therapy can also help make breathing easier. 

Pulmonary therapy or even moderate exercise such as walking can lessen symptoms. Some studies have indicated that yoga and tai chi can also help with symptoms.

Often, people with emphysema experience anxiety and depression. Joining a support group can be beneficial.

People with emphysema are often underweight. Foods rich with vitamins A, C, and E like fruits and vegetables are usually recommended.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, lung reduction surgery can improve the lives of people with severe emphysema (HHS, 2003). These procedures are rare.

What Is the Outlook for Emphysema?

The outlook for emphysema patients varies widely based on the severity of the disease. As a rule, smoking cigarettes heavily leads to shorter outcomes. People with emphysema can developing life-threatening conditions when the lungs and heart become damaged over time.

How Can Emphysema Be Prevented?

The best way to prevent the disease is to never start smoking, or to quit if you already have.

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