What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that gradually and irreversibly harms the air sacs in the lungs. As a result, the functioning area of the lungs is severely reduced along with blood oxygen levels. The primary cause is cigarette smoking, but it can also be caused by other types of products including marijuana, industrial fumes and air pollutants. In rare cases it is caused by an inherent lack of an essential lung protein.

What are the Symptoms of Emphysema?

The symptoms of emphysema range in severity.

They may include:

  • Shortness of breath while active or inactive
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Pursed lips upon exhaling as a natural response to collapsed bronchial tubes
  • Barrel-shaped chest caused by trapped air in the lungs

Symptoms that indicate a medical emergency in emphysema patients include:

  • Sudden and acute shortness of breath
  • Worsened shortness of breath that hinders speaking in complete sentences
  • Bluish lips, nails, tongue and skin

Emphysema Causes

While a significant number of cases of emphysema are due to smoking, including secondhand and thirdhand exposures, any condition that causes continued lung irritation can damage the air sacs in the lungs. Commonly, occupational and environmental exposures can precipitate the development of emphysema. Individuals working in coal plants and burning organic material for fuel are at an increased risk, as well as those who regularly inhale organic and inorganic dust.

It has been noted that individuals who regularly burn wood or animal waste for fuel are at higher risk as well. Prolonged exposure to these particles can cause significant irritation to the lungs and lead to emphysema. Additionally, conditions such as asthma and allergies affecting the airway have also been implicated in cases of emphysema. In rare cases, emphysema can be the result of a genetic condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency in which the liver does not produce a protective protein that limits damage from irritants and infections.

How is a Emphysema Treated?

Treatment can improve the symptoms of emphysema, but the damage is permanent.

Treatment includes

  • Inhaled corticosteroids
  • Bronchodilators
  • Antibiotics to treat infections that arise
  • Pulmonary therapy
  • Dietary changes for improved nutrition
  • Portable oxygen
  • Partial surgical removal of affected lung tissue
  • Lung transplant

Emphysema Prevention

Given the number of causative factors for emphysema, there are a number of things that can be done to reduce the risk of developing this condition. Considering the number of cases of emphysema caused by smoking, smoking cessation is a very effective method for emphysema prevention. Additionally, taking safety precautions when working with hazardous inhalants is important in reducing the risk of developing emphysema.

For individuals with a history of asthma and allergies affecting the airway, proper management and monitoring are very effective in preventing complications that can lead to emphysema. For individuals at increased risk due to a history of smoking or long-term exposure to inhaled irritants, maintaining a regular exercise regimen can help mitigate the damage done to the air sacs in the lungs and help develop protective adaptations. In addition, ensuring proper ventilation when burning materials for fuel is an effective precautionary measure in helping prevent emphysema.

Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 19, 2017