What is Emphysema and How is it Treated?

Recognizing the Symptoms of Emphysema

Middle aged woman using an inhaler
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What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a severe lung disease in which the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs become permanently damaged.

Normal, healthy lungs look like upside down branches of a tree with many thousands of tiny air sacs at the ends of the branches in bunches, like grapes. 

Lungs with emphysema have fewer, larger sacs.

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two lung ailments that fall under umbrella of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD is the term used for diagnosis today.

Key Facts About COPD

  • COPD is life-threatening and under-diagnosed.
  • COPD is irreversible, but can be slowed with treatment.
  • More than three million people died of COPD around the world in 2012.  That accounted for six percent of all deaths that year.
  • The primary cause of COPD is tobacco smoke. Both smokers and non-smokers who breathe in secondhand smoke are at risk.

What Causes Emphysema?

While environmental pollution can cause emphysema, cigarette smoking is by far the most common cause. The chemicals in cigarette smoke damage the delicate walls of alveoli, ultimately breaking them down.  

This process creates large air sacs that are less efficient at processing the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide because there is less surface area for this process to take place.

Damaged air sacs are also weaker in structure than normal healthy sacs and can collapse and trap air, making it much more difficult to take in fresh oxygen.

A person with emphysema may develop a barrel chest in which the distance from the chest to the back is more pronounced due to trapped air within the lungs.

This results in breathlessness and is why many people with emphysema must use supplemental bottled oxygen.

Most Common Symptoms of Emphysema

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea) is the number one symptom of emphysema.

These symptoms can also be associated with emphysema:

  • Anxiety
  • Unintentional loss of weight
  • Feet and ankle swelling
  • Fatigue

Emphysema is a Disease That's Slow to Progress

Emphysema develops gradually over a period of many years, and often goes unnoticed until a person starts having difficulty with breathing on mild exertion. People often mistakenly attribute shortness of breath to being out of shape or maybe a little overweight. This is how emphysema usually presents itself to begin with however, so don't ignore this symptom if you have it.  Check in with your doctor to find out the cause.

As emphysema advances, breathlessness will occur more frequently and not just during activity.

It is important to stop smoking as soon as possible. While the damage from emphysema is irreversible, the progression of this disease can be slowed if caught early enough.  Lung function can even be improved to some extent, as well.

How Emphysema is Treated

Stop Smoking
The most important thing a person can who has been diagnosed with emphysema can do is to quit smoking immediately.

Every cigarette smoked causes more damage to the lungs. In order to slow the disease's progression, smoking cessation is imperative.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation
Doctors often encourage regular exercise for people with emphysema. Pulmonary rehabilitation therapy helps emphysema patients build physical and respiratory stamina so that they can function at their best.

Oxygen Therapy
Oxygen deficiency is common with emphysema. External oxygen may be administered with a nose tube attached via a long tube to a bottle of oxygen to bring oxygen up to a comfortable breathing level.

Inhaler Therapy
Doctors might prescribe a number of bronchial dilators and anti-inflammatory medications to improve breathing and lung function.

Fluids and Mist Inhalers
People with emphysema develop bacterial lung infections more easily than people who don't have emphysema, and these infections can be life threatening. Maintaining fluids in the body and the occasional use of a mist inhaler can help prevent lung secretions from becoming mucus. Mucus in the lungs is an excellent breeding ground for bacterial infections.

Doctors often prescribe antibiotics to clear up bacterial lung infections, which lungs damaged by emphysema are more prone to.

Surgical Intervention for Emphysema

In some patients with emphysema, air sacs in the lungs have broken down into just a few, very large air sacs, known as bullae. These people may be good candidates for a bullectomy.  This surgical procedure removes the bullae, allowing surrounding healthier lung tissue to expand and work more efficiently.

Lung Volume Reduction Surgery (LVRS)
The theory behind LVRS surgery is that reducing the lung size will pull open the airways and allow the breathing muscles to return to a more normal and comfortable position, making breathing easier.


Prevention is the best weapon against emphysema. If you smoke, quit now. The work it takes to recover from nicotine addiction is nothing compared to the misery you and your loved ones may be faced with if you don't.


World Health Organization. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs315/en/. Accessed May 2016.

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