Emphysema vs. COPD: What Makes Them Different?

May 7th 2016

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis significantly contribute to the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but these three conditions are each different. Emphysema and COPD both result in strained, difficult breathing, and increase a person's risk of heart disease and lung cancer. It is important for individuals to discuss their symptoms with a doctor for a professional diagnosis and timely treatment.

What Is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a condition caused by prolonged exposure to irritants that inflame the lungs and eventually obstruct the airways. Cigarette smoke is the most common culprit. Individuals with COPD typically have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, or they may suffer from both conditions. Breathing difficulties and persistent shortness of breath are classic COPD symptoms and are often accompanied by a cough and wheezing.

Understanding Emphysema

The inhalation of cigarette smoke slowly kills the air sacs in the lungs that move oxygen into the bloodstream. This damage interferes with the breathing process, making respiration labored and difficult. Once the damage is done, it is irreversible. Individuals with emphysema can prevent further damage with lifestyle changes and proper treatment, but there is no cure for the disease.

The Basics of Chronic Bronchitis

Bronchitis most often irritates the lung passages and the windpipe, which stimulates the production of mucus. This initiates a cough response to expel the mucus, which is usually ineffective because of the volume and thickness of the mucus. Chronic bronchitis is classified as a persistent cough that lasts at least three consecutive months and occurs at least two years in a row. Like emphysema and COPD, chronic bronchitis has no cure but is usually manageable with adequate treatment.


Emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic bronchitis are often used synonymously in reference to lung diseases. These three conditions have similarities, but each is a separate and distinct diagnosis.

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