By Matthew Cenzon. May 7th 2016

Emphysema is an obstructive disease of the lungs that can cause shortness of breath due to the destruction of the alveoli of the lungs and the capillary blood vessels inside. These tissues are necessary to help keep the physical shape of the lungs, and for their proper function. Emphysema falls under the classification of diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Another common disease that is categorized as a COPD is chronic bronchitis, which is often confused with emphysema. A simple way to look at emphysema is it's a disease that destroys a person's lungs over time, preventing the body from receiving adequate amounts of oxygen.

Causes and Risk Factors

According to the National Institute of Health, cigarette smoking is the leading cause of emphysema. While air pollution can be another possible cause for this COPD, smoking is the most recognized cause of emphysema. Here is a list of possible causes for emphysema:

  • Smoking
  • Air pollution
  • Fumes from industrialized factories and locations
  • Exposure to gases and fumes at the workplace
  • Coal or dust
  • Second-hand smoke
  • Frequent exposure to cooking fires without the proper ventilation
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
  • Age
  • Heredity

Those highly at risk for developing emphysema include:

  • Smokers: While cigarette smokers are the most at risk for developing emphysema, cigar, pipe and marijuana smoke can also increase the risk of developing this COPD. The more a person smokes, the higher the risk he or she has of developing emphysema. Exposure to second-hand smoke also increases the risk of emphysema.
  • Workers exposed to fumes, dust or gases: Those who work in industrialized factors or any other occupation that exposes them to excessive gas and fumes are highly susceptible to emphysema.
  • Age: Natural deterioration of the lungs coupled with smoking and/or exposure to airborne irritants heightens the risk of developing emphysema.


Since emphysema is a disease that gets progressively worse over time, it may be difficult for a person to recognize early symptoms of emphysema. The most common symptoms of emphysema include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing, especially after physical activity
  • Coughing, primarily a dry, hacking cough
  • Various respiratory issues
  • Fatigue

Because many of these symptoms can be associated with other respiratory problems, or even common illnesses like the cold and flu, the risk of developing emphysema typically goes on unchecked. It is only as the disease progresses with more severe symptoms that people recognize they are dealing with a serious health condition.

Tests and Diagnosis

If you recognize any of the symptoms of emphysema and you fit under any category of the possible risk factors, you should speak with your physician immediately. Your doctor will most likely perform a fairly simple test known as spirometry, which tests how well a person can breathe. The test generally consists of blowing into a mouth piece connected to a device that will measure your lung capacity.

The doctor can also listen to your lungs with a stethoscope, or use x-rays or computerized tomography (CT) scans to view the lungs. However, these tests don't always indicate the possible development of emphysema, even though it may be present. Typically, these tests, in conjunction with a spirometry are enough to be indicative of the development of emphysema during its early stages.

Complications Associated with Emphysema

Those diagnosed with emphysema are at risk of the following complications:

  • Collapsed lung
  • Pneumonia
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Lung disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Osteoporosis
  • Heart failure
  • Severe difficulty breathing requiring assisted breathing machines and oxygen therapy


Unfortunately, there is no cure for emphysema, but there are options to decrease the severity of the disease. The first step would be to quit smoking immediately to reduce any further damage to the lungs. Physicians can then prescribe medications to help treat emphysema like inhalers or anti-inflammatory medications. Those suffering from severe complications of emphysema might be given the following forms of treatment:

  • Steroids administered through the mouth or an IV
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Supplemental oxygen through a breathing machine
  • Oxygen therapy

Surgery may be an option for some patients, where damaged portions of the lung are removed. A lung transplant can also be used for very severe cases. A healthy diet and light, steady exercise can also help a person dealing with emphysema.


The best way to prevent emphysema is to quit smoking and avoid second hand smoke at all costs. If you are constantly exposed to airborne irritants because of your work, be sure to always wear a protective mask. There is a chance for your lungs to heal if you quit smoking as soon as possible, as long as the damage done by cigarette smoke is not too severe.

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