COPD Home > Emphysema

Emphysema is a disease that will typically develop after a long period of attack on the lungs and airways (usually from smoke or fumes). Cigarette smoking is the primary cause of this condition. Possible symptoms include coughing, wheezing, and chronic mucus production. There are many ways to treat this condition; treatment options include medications, oxygen therapy, and surgery. However, the most important part of treatment is to stop smoking.

What Is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a degenerative disease that usually develops after many years of assault on lung tissues from cigarette smoke or other toxins that pollute the air. These toxins destroy the small air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, that stretch as they transport oxygen from the air to the blood and then shrink as they force out carbon dioxide. As a result, the lungs lose their elasticity, and exhaling becomes difficult as the damaged lungs trap air and cannot effectively exchange it with fresh air. As the damage progresses, the effort needed to breathe increases and, ultimately, each breath becomes labored.
 
Emphysema is a form of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Other diseases that fall under COPD include asthma and chronic bronchitis. Nearly 16 million Americans are estimated to suffer from some form of COPD, and COPD is the fourth-ranking cause of death, just behind heart ailments, cancers, and stroke.
 

What Causes It?

Cigarette smoking is the primary cause of emphysema. Exposure to air pollution and irritating fumes and dusts on the job are also thought to be contributing factors of emphysema.
 
(Click Causes of Emphysema for more information.)
 

Symptoms and Signs of Emphysema

The predominant symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath or the feeling of not being able to get enough air. A person may initially visit the doctor because he or she has begun to feel short of breath during activity, but as the disease progresses, this symptom may be present all the time.
 
Coughing, wheezing, and chronic mucus production are other common symptoms of emphysema.
 
(Click Emphysema Symptoms for more information.)
 
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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