9 Things to Know About Emphysema

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Jennifer L.W. Fink, RN, BSN on June 4, 2021
  • Senior Caucasian man coughing into tissue or handkerchief
    How much do you know about emphysema symptoms and treatment?
    Unless you’re one of the approximately 14 million Americans who has emphysema, you probably don’t know much about this common lung disease. Emphysema is a form of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) characterized by damage to the air sacs of the lungs. People with emphysema can easily become short of breath with activity. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath can be a problem even at rest. Here’s what to know about emphysema vs. COPD, including emphysema symptoms early on in the disease and how treatment extends beyond medications and oxygen.
  • illustration of alveoli (tiny air sacs) in lungs and blood oxygen exchange
    1. Damaged air sacs are the hallmark of emphysema.
    COPD is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of lung diseases that get worse over time, including chronic bronchitis, non-reversible asthma, and emphysema. Each of these diseases can cause shortness of breath and cough, but the how of each disease is slightly different. With emphysema, there is gradual damage to the air sacs, or alveoli in the lungs. These air sacs are responsible for oxygen exchange in the lungs. When the air sacs are damaged, the body does not get enough oxygen.
  • mature man gardening at home
    2. You can have emphysema for years without noticing any symptoms.
    The main symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath. In the disease’s early stages, though, people are often only short of breath during activity—and who doesn’t get short of breath while gardening or climbing stairs? Initial bouts of shortness of breath may be brief and easily explained away. In some cases, symptoms aren’t noticed until 50% or more of lung tissue has been destroyed. If you (or a loved one) experience occasional breathlessness, talk with a healthcare provider. Other emphysema symptoms include chronic cough, chronic tiredness, wheezing, excessive mucus, and blue-tinged lips or fingertips.
  • cigarette-stubs-in-ashtray
    3. Nonsmokers can develop emphysema.
    Cigarette smoking is the #1 cause of emphysema, and many smokers develop emphysema symptoms between the ages of 40 and 60. However, nonsmokers can develop emphysema too. Some live with smokers or spent years working in smoke-filled environments. Exposure to secondhand smoke can trigger the development of emphysema. Regular or long-term exposure to air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust can also cause emphysema. A rare hereditary disease—alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency—can cause emphysema as well.
  • man undergoing spirometry to measure lung function
    4. Doctors use lung function tests to diagnose and assess emphysema.
    Healthcare providers use a variety of tests to check for emphysema. In some cases, a chest X-ray may show evidence of emphysema. CT scans may also reveal lung damage consistent with emphysema. What doctors really want to know, though, is how well your lungs are working. Lung function tests help physicians measure lung capacity. Patients typically are asked to inhale, then exhale into a tube connected to a simple machine called a spirometer. Physicians compare the results to normal ranges. Doctors also use lung function tests to measure the effectiveness of emphysema treatments.
  • smiling African American senior woman standing outside with arms crossed in front of blue sky
    5. There is no cure for emphysema, but you can decrease symptoms.
    Emphysema is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse with time. Right now, there’s no way to halt the disease. However, there’s a lot you can do to slow it down. Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke and exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution is the best thing you can do to maintain lung capacity and preserve your overall health. Prescription medication can control emphysema symptoms. Many people with emphysema use inhalers and take oral medicine. Your healthcare provider will design an emphysema treatment plan tailored to your needs
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables
    6. Proper nutrition is important for people with emphysema.
    If you are obese or overweight, losing even a few pounds can dramatically improve your breathing and quality of life. Of course, it’s not easy to change lifelong eating habits. Ask your healthcare provider for a referral to a nutritionist who works regularly with people with emphysema. The nutritionist can help you develop an eating plan that fits your lifestyle and meets your nutritional needs. People with advanced emphysema may have a hard time eating enough. When eating makes you short of breath, it can be difficult to take in sufficient calories. Your healthcare provider may recommend nutritional supplements.
  • smiling senior man using exericse bike
    7. Exercise is an important part of emphysema treatment.
    Exercise can actually increase your lung capacity. That’s why healthcare providers recommend regular exercise for people with emphysema. In fact, some hospitals and clinics offer pulmonary rehabilitation programs to people with lung diseases; these programs include an assessment of your current fitness level and a guided exercise program. Anyone who has emphysema should ease into exercise. Ask your healthcare provider if you are healthy enough to begin exercising. Your provider may also be able to refer you to a fitness professional who helps design activity programs for people with health challenges.
  • senior woman receiving injection
    8. Vaccination can prevent complications.
    People who have emphysema are particularly prone to respiratory infections. And simple respiratory infections can quickly turn serious in people with emphysema. If you have emphysema, make sure you are up to date on all of your vaccinations. You should also get a flu shot each year, and pneumonia vaccinations, if recommended by your healthcare provider. (In most cases, pneumonia vaccines are recommended for adults over the age of 65, but younger people with lung disease can also benefit.)
  • elderly man using inhalation mask at home
    9. Emphysema can affect your emotions.
    Emphysema can change your life. Shortness of breath may make it difficult for you to engage in activities you once loved, and you may need to minimize time around friends who smoke, for instance. It’s natural to feel disappointed and discouraged sometimes. Sharing your feelings with a loved one may help. So can journaling. If you find yourself withdrawing from other people or unable to experience joy, talk with your healthcare provider. Counseling may help; antidepressant medication may be another option. Some communities also have support groups for people with emphysema. Your provider can point you toward local resources.
Emphysema: 9 Things to Know | Emphysema Symptoms & Treatment

About The Author

Jennifer L.W. Fink, RN, BSN is a Registered Nurse-turned-writer. She’s also the creator of BuildingBoys.net and co-creator/co-host of the podcast On Boys: Real Talk about Parenting, Teaching & Reaching Tomorrow’s Men. Most recently, she is the author ofThe First-Time Mom's Guide to Raising Boys: Practical Advice for Your Son's Formative Years.
  1. Emphysema. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9370-emphysema
  2. Pahal, P., & Sharma, S. (2019). Emphysema. Statpearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK.
  3. Emphysema. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/emphysema.html
  4. Emphysema. American Lung Association. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/emphysema/
  5. Emphysema. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/emphysema/symptoms-causes/syc-20355555
  6. Emphysema. CHEST Foundation. https://foundation.chestnet.org/patient-education-resources/emphysema/
  7. Pulmonary Rehabilitation. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/pulmonaryrehabilitation.html

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Last Review Date: 2021 Jun 4
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