Starting emphysema treatment in the earliest (mild) stage, when you may have a nagging cough and increased mucus production, may help you maintain a better quality of life for a longer period of time.

Emphysema is a disease in which tiny air sacs inside the lungs (alveoli) are damaged, causing shortness of breath.

It primarily affects people who smoke and is one of the two major conditions that comprise chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). The other is chronic bronchitis. Many people with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema is an irreversible condition that progresses from the mild stage to moderate, severe, and very severe.

Because it’s an irreversible condition, the goal of treatment is to slow down the progression — and the earlier you start treatment, the better.

In general, people with COPD live 6 fewer years than people without COPD, according to a 2021 study.

However, your age and disease stage are key factors that will affect your life expectancy. People with a milder form of the disease have a longer life expectancy than those with a more advanced form.

For example, a 2018 study concluded that the mean life expectancy for someone who experienced an exacerbation of COPD declined as their disease got more severe.

A person with stage 1 (mild) disease had a mean life expectancy of 9.7 years, compared with the 10.2-year mean survival rate for the general population. But that dropped to 7.1 years for people with stage 2 (moderate) disease.

Older research notes that people in the early stages of COPD can expect to lose “at most a few years of life expectancy at age 65” when compared to people without lung disease. People with more advanced disease, especially if they smoke, have a shorter life expectancy, according to the same research.

Being active can help extend your life. The 2021 study found that the participants with COPD who were physically active could achieve a life expectancy similar to those without COPD who were not physically active.

Emphysema is a progressive and irreversible disease. Eventually, it will worsen.

However, you can slow down the progression by quitting smoking, if you smoke. This is often difficult, but a doctor can help build a cessation plan that works for you.

Other strategies often recommended include:

While the outlook is better for those in the earlier stage of emphysema than late-stage emphysema, there are some options to consider that may help those with severe emphysema.

For example, those with advanced or severe emphysema often use oxygen therapy. They may also be candidates for surgery like lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) or bronchoscopic lung volume reduction (BLVR), a minimally invasive procedure to implant valves in the airways of the lungs to improve lung function.

Pulmonary rehabilitation may also help. A 2022 study found that it improved quality of life for people with COPD, reduced hospitalizations, and resulted in cost savings, even in people with later-stage COPD.

It can take several years to progress from the early stages of emphysema or COPD to a late stage of the disease. Quitting smoking, if you smoke, can help slow the progression.

Treatment for mild emphysema often entails the use of medications like bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids.

Bronchodilators relax the muscles in the lungs and widen the airways to improve your breathing. They’re available in short-acting and long-acting versions. With mild emphysema, you might start treatment with a short-acting bronchodilator on an as-needed basis, and if your emphysema progresses, your doctor may add on a long-acting bronchodilator.

Corticosteroids can make it easier to breathe by targeting and reducing inflammation in the lungs. They may be effective in relieving some of your symptoms, but they can cause some side effects over time, including high blood pressure and weakened bones.

Here are answers to some common questions about mild emphysema:

How serious is mild emphysema?

Mild emphysema is the first stage of this progressive disease. While you may have an ongoing cough and produce a lot of mucus, you may or may not experience other effects of the reduced airflow. However, that can also depend on your age and overall health.

Can mild emphysema stay mild?

If you receive treatment early and you stop smoking (if you smoke), you can mitigate some of the worst symptoms and maintain a better quality of life early. However, it’s a progressive disease with no cure.

Can you live a normal life with mild emphysema?

You can live a relatively typical life with mild emphysema, including having a normal life expectancy. According to , physical activity or exercise is also key to expanding your life expectancy.

Can you still work with mild emphysema?

If you manage your symptoms and don’t feel too fatigued, there’s no reason why you should not be able to keep working.

If your symptoms begin to worsen and impede your ability to do your job, consider speaking with your doctor. You may need to make some adjustments to your treatment plan.

Emphysema is a serious disease that causes coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, and other symptoms. The earlier it’s detected and treated, the better outcomes you can usually expect.