Chronic emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) caused by damage to the air sacs in the lungs. Although there is no cure, you can manage the disease with lifestyle changes and treatment.

Chronic emphysema is one of two conditions classified as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The other condition is chronic bronchitis.

COPD is caused primarily by cigarette smoking and is the third leading cause of death worldwide.

In chronic emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, become damaged. This makes it difficult for a person to breathe.

Because emphysema causes permanent lung damage, it is a chronic lifelong condition. If a person does not modify their lifestyle factors, including quitting tobacco use, emphysema can get progressively worse over time.

While emphysema cannot be fully reversed, treatment options are available to help you or a loved one manage the condition and ease symptoms.

In the early stages of chronic emphysema, you may have very few symptoms or only mild symptoms. But as the condition progresses, symptoms will typically worsen.

Some of the most common symptoms of chronic emphysema include:

As the condition worsens over time, your symptoms may become more serious. You may notice you:

  • are losing weight without trying to
  • have a cough that includes increased amounts of yellowish mucus
  • have wheezing that has gotten more severe
  • have headaches, especially in the morning
  • have swelling in your feet and ankles

It’s important to talk with your doctor if you notice new symptoms or if your existing symptoms are getting worse.

The single greatest risk factor for developing emphysema is being a smoker. In fact, according to research, it’s estimated that 10% to 15% of smokers may develop emphysema during their lifetime.

The risk of developing emphysema seems to be associated with how much you smoke (the number of cigarettes smoked per day) as well as how many years you have smoked. The more smoking you did each day and the more years you smoked, the higher the risk of developing chronic emphysema.

Other risk factors for developing chronic emphysema include:

  • being over age 50
  • genetic factors, such as having an alpha-1 anti-trypsin (AAT) deficiency
  • exposure to environmental chemicals
  • exposure to secondhand smoke
  • marijuana smoking

Chronic emphysema and chronic bronchitis are both respiratory diseases that fall under the category of COPD.

Chronic emphysema is caused by damage to the air sacs in the lungs, whereas chronic bronchitis is caused by inflammation and irritation of the airways.

It’s possible to have both chronic emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two based on symptoms alone.

Both conditions cause coughing with a lot of mucus production, as well as breathing difficulties. Both conditions also worsen over time and are closely associated with cigarette smoking.

The best way to determine if you have chronic emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or both is to make an appointment with a doctor. They will be able to order specific tests to help distinguish between the two conditions.

Based on your diagnosis, they will also be able to discuss the best type of treatment options with you.

Chronic emphysema is treated with a combination of lifestyle modifications to slow the progression of the disease and medications to reduce symptoms.

Lifestyle modifications

If you’ve received a diagnosis of emphysema, the most important step you can take is to stop smoking. You’ll also want to reduce your exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke and environmental pollutants, like exhaust fumes, smog, and smoke. Another important step is to get your yearly flu vaccinations.

Medical interventions

A doctor may prescribe medications to help you breathe more easily. These medications may include:

Oxygen therapy, either part time or full time, may be necessary as the condition progresses. Some people may benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation. This may include:

  • specific exercises
  • nutrition instruction
  • mental health counseling

If you cannot manage emphysema with medications and other therapies, a lung transplant may be a consideration.

Surgery may also be an option for some people who have bullous emphysema. This is a type of emphysema where bubble-like cavities, filled with air or fluid, develop in the upper lobes of the lung.

If not properly treated, chronic emphysema can be life threatening, especially as it progresses. Chronic emphysema can put you at an increased risk for respiratory failure, which can be fatal. If you have respiratory failure, you may need round-the-clock oxygen treatment.

Other complications of chronic emphysema include a reduced ability to exert yourself, repeated lung or chest infections, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Having emphysema can put you at higher risk of catching cold and flu viruses, and you may fare more poorly than others if you have a respiratory illness.

Chronic emphysema is a scary diagnosis, and it does mean that there’s permanent damage to your lungs. At the same time, you can reduce further damage by quitting smoking at the time of diagnosis.

It’s also important to reduce your exposure to pollutants and secondhand smoke. And adopting a healthy diet and exercising when you’re able can help improve your outlook.

Getting the right treatment can improve your quality of life and reduce the risk of serious complications. If chronic emphysema is properly managed, it’s possible for a person with the condition to live a full life.

Chronic emphysema is a type of COPD caused by damage to the air sacs in the lungs. The condition is primarily caused by smoking and tends to worsen over time.

Symptoms may include ongoing coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, and fatigue. Chronic emphysema is similar to chronic bronchitis. Both are types of COPD, but chronic bronchitis is caused by inflammation of the airways.

It can be challenging to live with chronic emphysema, but there’s hope. Smoking cessation can slow the progression of the condition, and medical treatments can improve your quality of life.

It’s important to work closely with your healthcare team as you navigate your chronic emphysema diagnosis and treatment.