Medical Specialties: Family practice, Internal medicine, Pulmonology

Clinical Definition

Emphysema is a chronic respiratory disease that occurs when the alveoli of the lungs become damaged and lose their elastic properties. Respiratory function is compromised when atelectasis occurs (over-inflation of the alveoli), and damage to the alveoli interferes with gas exchange. Development of disease is due to long-term inhalation of lung irritants like cigarette smoke. An additional, rare cause of emphysema is Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency.  

In Our Own Words

Emphysema is a type of lung disease that interferes with normal breathing. Your lungs have millions of tiny air sacs which expand during inhalation and shrink during exhalation. In people with emphysema, the air sacs become damaged from continual irritation (usually from cigarette smoke), and become floppy and less elastic. Some air sacs may even collapse while others are unable to fully deflate. This makes getting oxygen in (and carbon dioxide out) very difficult and, hence, breathing gradually becomes labored.

There is also a rare form of emphysema that isn’t caused by smoking: Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency is a genetic disorder that can also cause emphysema. In people with the inherited disease, the body does not make an adequate protein that protects the lungs from damage. Unfortunately, smokers who also have this deficiency develop emphysema very rapidly.

Relevant Conditions
  • COPD
  • Alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency
Side Effects
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chronic cough
Share this article
  • Farzan, Sattar, M.D., FACP, FCCP. “A Concise Handbook of Respiratory Diseases.” Prentice Hall. Accessed Aug. 2013.
  • NYU Langone Medical Center. “Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine,” Emphysema. http://medicine.med.nyu.edu. Accessed Aug. 2013.
  • University of Maryland Medical Center. Emphysema, Conditions. http://umm.edu. Accessed August 2013.
  • Cleveland Clinic. What is Emphysema? http://my.clevelandclinic.org. Accessed Aug. 2013.
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