Emphysema is a lung disease that can develop after long-term tobacco use or exposure to secondhand smoke. It’s part of a group of lung diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

If you have emphysema, you might feel like you’re often short of breath. Other common symptoms include tightness in the chest, coughing up phlegm, and wheezing.

This article will explain when antibiotics are prescribed for emphysema and what other types of treatments are used for this condition.

Your lungs are made up of millions of microscopic air sacs called alveoli. With emphysema, the alveoli (tiny air sacs in your lungs) become weak and rupture. This makes your lungs less efficient.

As a result of the ruptured alveoli, less oxygen reaches your bloodstream when you inhale. When you breathe out, air can become trapped in your lungs, making it harder for new air to get into your lungs.

Emphysema develops after years of lung damage, usually from smoking or being exposed to secondhand smoke. Less common causes of emphysema include regularly inhaling substances, such as:

  • polluted air
  • chemicals
  • fumes
  • dust

According to the American Lung Association, more than 3 million people have received a diagnosis of emphysema in the United States. Because of emphysema’s strong link to smoking, it’s considered to be one of the most preventable respiratory illnesses.

Although emphysema has no cure, there are a variety of treatment options to help manage symptoms and prevent additional lung damage. These include medication, behavioral therapies and, in severe cases, surgery.

Antibiotics don’t treat emphysema specifically. Instead, they’re prescribed to treat flare-ups or exacerbations associated with emphysema and more broadly, COPD.

During a COPD exacerbation, symptoms such as shortness of breath and phlegm production suddenly get worse. In some cases, the cause is a bacterial infection in the lungs, such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

The goal of antibiotic treatment is to eliminate the bacterial infection, thereby alleviating symptoms. The type of antibiotic and route of administration depends on the severity of the exacerbation.

According to treatment guidelines from the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD), mild to moderate exacerbations can be treated with oral antibiotics, including:

Severe exacerbations are typically treated with intravenous (IV) antibiotics, including:

  • ceftriaxone
  • levofloxacin
  • cefepime
  • piperacillin-tazobactam
  • aztreonam

Antibiotics are only helpful if you have a bacterial infection. Your doctor will assess your symptoms and conduct tests to determine whether a bacterial infection is causing your exacerbation.

Other common treatments for emphysema can help alleviate your symptoms, while also maintaining your lung health and quality of life.

Treatments may include:

  • Bronchodilators. Inhalers help relax the muscles in the respiratory passages, allowing more air to enter and exit your lungs.
  • Corticosteroids. Corticosteroids target and relieve inflammation and irritation in the airways.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. Pulmonary rehabilitation includes education, breathing exercises, and counseling to help you maintain your quality of life.
  • Vaccines. Flu and pneumonia vaccines can help prevent exacerbations associated with COPD and emphysema.
  • Lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes, such as smoking cessation, moderate exercise, and a nutritious diet may help ease emphysema symptoms.
  • Oxygen therapy. Portable oxygen therapy devices deliver concentrated oxygen to your lungs, helping to reduce shortness of breath.
  • Surgery. Surgical treatments, usually a last resort in severe cases of emphysema, include procedures like lung volume reduction surgery and a lung transplant.

The outlook for emphysema depends on a number of factors, such as when you receive the diagnosis. With early treatment, most people can manage their symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

The outlook for emphysema also depends on the steps you’re willing to take. If you smoke, quitting smoking is one of the most important things you can do to prevent further lung damage.

If you experience a flare-up of emphysema symptoms, seek medical attention right away. Early treatment with antibiotics can make a significant difference when a bacterial infection is causing an exacerbation.

Antibiotics are a type of medication used to treat symptoms associated with COPD and emphysema. They’re prescribed to treat flare-ups caused by respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis. These infections are more likely to develop if you have emphysema.

Other medications for emphysema include bronchodilators and corticosteroids. Your doctor might also suggest pulmonary rehabilitation and lifestyle changes to improve your lung health.

If you have emphysema, talk with your doctor about how you can reduce your risk of respiratory infections, and what type of treatments are best suited to you.