Emphysema Definition and Information

Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention of Emphysema

Smoking Causes Emphysema
Smoking is the #1 Cause of Emphysema. Photo © istockphoto.com user Walter Zerla

Emphysema is a common type of COPD in which the alveoli, or air sacs of the lungs, become damaged causing them to enlarge and burst. Because the air sacs are the cells in the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged, damage in this area makes it difficult for people with emphysema to expel air from their lungs. This causes a build up of carbon dioxide in the body.

Emphysema is an irreversible, end-stage process that progresses slowly over many years.

Currently, there is no cure, but treatment of emphysema may improve quality of life.


In 2005, 3.8 million people in the United States were diagnosed with emphysema. Of those, 54.4% were male and 45.6% were female.

Primary Causes: Smoking, Alpha-1-Antitrypsin Deficiency, and Air Pollution

Smoking remains the major cause of emphysema. Cigarette smoking damages the cilia in the lungs which normally help clear away mucus and secretions. This creates blockage in the airways. Cigarette smoke also causes inflammation and irritation in the lungs leading to an increase in mucus production. Too much mucus in the lungs places you at an increased risk for lung infections, as mucus provides bacteria with the perfect hide-away.

Air pollution also plays a role in the development of emphysema. Like that of its damaging counterpart smoking, air pollution causes airway inflammation and irritation that eventually destroys healthy lung tissue.

You may be surprised, however, to learn that even indoor air can be polluted. Learn steps on improving indoor air quality in order to reduce respiratory irritants in your home.

Although smoking and air pollution play the greatest role in their contribution to emphysema, a small percentage of people have a genetic predisposition for the disease that is associated with a deficiency of the enzyme, alpha-1-antitrypsin.

Those who are afflicted with alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency are susceptible to irritants in the environment such as smoking, secondhand smoke, air pollution, and allergens that, over time, cause symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease such as emphysema.

Symptoms of Emphysema

The primary symptoms of emphysema are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Chronic cough, with, or without, sputum
  • Decreased exercise tolerance
  • Loss of appetite leading to weight loss
  • Barrel chest

Eventually, those who suffer from emphysema may progress to respiratory failure which occurs after a slow, insidious disease process. To find out more about your specific symptoms, visit Symptom Checker, our interactive tool to help you better understand your symptoms.

Diagnostic Testing

The patient's reported symptoms and history provide the initial clues upon examination. Diagnostic tests include:

Treatment Options

The major objective of treatment of emphysema is to improve the quality of life, slow the progression of the disease and treat the airways to relieve their apparent lack of oxygen. Treatment options include:

  • Bronchodilators
  • Aerosol therapy


No other preventative factor carriers more weight than smoking cessation in the prevention and treatment of emphysema. Many options are available for smokers who are having a hard time quitting on their own. With stop smoking aids, counseling and support groups, smoking can be a thing of the past for those with a strong desire to make positive lifestyle changes.

For more information about quitting smoking, visit COPD's quit smoking section. 


The National Center for Health Statistics, 2005. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/emphsema.htm

Bare, Brenda G. & Smeltzer, Suzanne C. (1996). Brunner and Suddarth's Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing(8th Edition). Philidelphia, PA: Lippincott-Raven Publishers.