Emphysema is one of many diseases known collectively as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. The disease begins when the air sacs in your lungs are gradually destroyed, making it progressively more difficult to breathe. As it becomes more serious, air sacs that are normally clustered in bunches similar to grapes turn into larger irregular pockets with holes in the walls. This reduces the surface area of your lungs and the amount of oxygen that flows into your bloodstream.

Emphysema also slowly destroys the fibers that hold open the airways that lead to the air sacs; this causes the airway to collapse when you breathe out so the air in your lungs cannot completely escape. Treatment can slow the progression of emphysema but will not reverse the damage.


Risk Factors and Causes

Factors that increase your risk of developing emphysema might include smoking, age, exposure to secondhand smoke, occupational exposure to dust or fumes, and exposure to indoor and outdoor pollution. If you smoke, the risk goes up with the number of years that you continue to smoke and how much tobacco you smoke. Since the lung damage is gradual, most cases of tobacco-related emphysema occur between the ages of 40 and 60. If you do not smoke, try to limit your exposure to secondhand smoke and use air filters inside your home as much as possible for cleaner air. If you must breathe fumes and chemicals during the course of your work, wear a mask and only work in properly ventilated areas.

The main cause of emphysema is long term exposure to airborne and irritants including tobacco smoke, air pollution, marijuana smoke, byproducts of manufacturing, silica, and coal dust. Emphysema is also know to be caused by an inherited deficiency in a protein that is designed to protect the elastic structure in the lungs, known as Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency emphysema.



It is possible to have emphysema for many years without noticing any symptoms. The main symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath which usually starts gradually. You may find yourself avoiding certain activities that cause you to be short of breath. For many, symptoms don’t become a problem until they start interfering with everyday tasks. The disease will eventually cause shortness of breath even while you’re resting. You should see a doctor immediately if you are so short of breath that you cannot talk, your lips or fingernails turn blue, your heartbeat is incredibly fast, or you find yourself not feeling mentally alert..



To determine if a patient has emphysema, doctors may order a variety of lab tests, lung function tests, and imaging tests. The most common diagnostic procedure is non-invasive and focuses on the overall function of the lungs. Doctors use tests to measure how much air your lungs can hold, how well your lungs exhale, and how your lungs perform during exercise.

Chest X-rays are often used to confirm a diagnosis by detecting changes in the lungs and ruling out other possibilities. Shortness of breath can be caused by quite a few factors; X-rays can also detect tumors or infection but alone are not enough to make an accurate diagnosis. A special blood test, known as an arterial blood gas test, draws samples from the arteries in your chest to determine how well your lungs are working to transfer oxygen and how well they remove carbon dioxide from the bloodstream. If lung surgery is a possibility, a CT scan will help by combining X-ray images taken from different directions to create a cross-sectional view of your lungs.



Emphysema cannot be cured and ultimately shortens the lifespan of patients who suffer from it. Treatments can help relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease however many patients find themselves increasing dependent over time. Medications include smoking cessation drugs, bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, and antibiotics. Some doctors recommend pulmonary rehabilitation therapy to teach you breathing exercises and techniques to improve your daily activities. Supplemental oxygen may also be recommended for advanced patients; surgery is typically recommended only when tumors are present.


Improving prognosis

To improve your condition: stop smoking, exercise on a regular basis, and avoid other irritants such as paint fumes, cooking odors, perfumes, candles, and incense. Change air filters in your home regularly. Avoid respiratory infections by getting vaccinations and staying away from people who have the cold or the flu. Protect yourself from cold air and other irritating environmental factors. Exposure to pollen and overly dry or humid conditions can cause spasms of bronchial passages, making it even more difficult to breathe.


The information provided on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material found on this website is intended to promote and encourage consumer understanding and should not be considered alternative or supplementary medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health or physical condition, seek the advice of a licensed qualified healthcare provider. Be sure to discuss any changes or concerns with your doctor before beginning a new healthcare regimen, undergoing any procedures, or changing current healthcare plans. Seniors and Health does not claim medical representation and assumes no responsibility in the accuracy of the information available on this website.

To learn about other common health concerns among senior, check out our Health and Conditions page; we also provide information on senior care options on our Assisted Living page.

Want to get more helpful tips? Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, Pinterest and Google Plus