These factors increase your chance of developing emphysema. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:

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Pronounced: em-fiss-SEE-mah by Debra Wood, RN

En Español (Spanish Version)


Emphysema is a chronic obstructive disease of the lungs. The lungs contain millions of tiny air sacs called alveoli.

In emphysema, the sacs lose their elasticity and air becomes trapped in the sacs. It becomes difficult to expel oxygen-depleted air from the lungs so the normal exchange of new and used air is diminished. Emphysema is classified as a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Normal Lung vs Emphysemic Lung

© 2011 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Emphysema develops due to:


Inhaling toxins or other irritants

Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD)—a genetic defect which can cause emphysema at an early age in nonsmokers

Risk Factors

These factors increase your chance of developing emphysema. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:


Long-term secondhand or passive smoke exposure


Family members with emphysema Exposure to pollutants at work

History of frequent childhood lung infections Age: 50 or older

Connective tissue disorders HIV infection


Early symptoms include:

Coughing in the morning

Coughing up clear sputum (mucus from deep in the lungs) Wheezing

Shortness of breath with activity

As the disease progresses, you may experience:

Increased shortness of breath Rapid breathing

Choking sensation when lying flat (may need to prop up with many pillows or even sleep in a chair) Fatigue

Trouble concentrating

Increase in chest size (barrel chest) Increased risk of serious lung infections Enlargement of the right chamber of the heart Heart failure

Coughing up thick and/or bloody mucus Swelling in the legs

Weight loss

Breathing through pursed lips

Desire to lean forward to improve breathing

More frequent flare-ups (periods of more severe symptoms)


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be performed.

Tests may include:

Chest x-ray —a test that uses radiation to take pictures of structures inside the chest CT Scan —a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the chest Arterial blood gas test—a blood test to assess the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood Lung function tests (spirometry)


There is no treatment to cure emphysema. Treatment aims to ease symptoms and improve quality of life.

Treatment includes:


Smoking Cessation

Quitting smoking slows progression of the disease. Doctors consider it the most important aspect of treatment.

Smoking cessation programs may include behavior modification and medications to help you gradually taper off cigarettes.

Environmental Management

Limiting the number of irritants in the air may help make breathing easier. Avoid smoke, dust, smog, extreme heat or cold, and high altitudes.


Although no medication will actually cure emphysema, a variety of drugs are available to help ease the symptoms and fight the complications. These include:

Bronchodilators—to relax the airways and open breathing passages (may be given as pills or inhaled) Corticosteroids—to decrease inflammation and swelling in the breathing passages

Antibiotics—to fight bacterial infections

Expectorants—to loosen mucus and make it easier to cough up


Oxygen is given to supplement the air taken in by the body. It can increase energy levels and heart and brain function by increasing the amount of available oxygen.

Infection Prevention

Because emphysema makes you prone to flu and pneumonia:

Doctors recommend an annual flu shot.

Be sure to have a pneumococcal vaccine.

Avoid being around people who are sick. If you think you are getting the flu, call your doctor. You may need to take an antiviral medication.

Exercise/Pulmonary Rehabilitation Programs

Special exercises can strengthen chest muscles and make breathing easier. Physical activity builds endurance and improves quality of life. Follow your doctor's recommendations for activity levels and restrictions.

Breathing Techniques

Special methods of breathing and breathing exercises with and without an incentive spirometer can help bring more air into the lungs and force trapped air out of the lungs.

Percussion and Postural Drainage

This is a technique that uses special techniques of clapping on the back and chest to help loosen secretions and special positioning to help the lungs drain.

Nutrition and Fluids

Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight causes the lungs and heart to work harder.

Eat a healthful diet, one that is low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Eat several small meals during the day. It makes breathing easier.


Avoid gas-producing foods. An overly full stomach pushes up on the diaphragm, which encroaches on the lungs' space. This makes it harder to breathe.

Drink fluids to keep mucus thin.

Lifestyle Changes

Pace your activities.

Learn relaxation techniques and other methods to manage stress.

Seek emotional support from therapists, family, and friends. Anxiety can increase the rate of respiration, making breathing more strenuous.

Avoid situations which might expose you to a respiratory illnesses.

Be sure to get a yearly flu vaccine.

Avoid high altitudes and extremes of temperature.


A small number of patients may benefit from surgery. Procedures used to treat emphysema include:

Bullectomy to remove a an area in the lung called bulla (sometimes done with laser) Lung volume reduction surgery

Lung transplant

If you are diagnosed with emphysema, follow your doctor's instructions.


You can reduce you chances of developing emphysema by:

Not smoking

Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke Avoiding exposure to air pollution or irritants

Wearing protective gear if exposed to irritants or toxins at work RESOURCES:

American College of Chest Physicians

American Lung Association


The Canadian Lung Association

Health Canada


Chhabra SK, Gupta RK, Singh T. Cutis laxa and pulmonary emphysema. Indian J Chest Dis Allied Sci.


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. National clinical guideline on management of chronic obstructive


pulmonary disease in adults in primary and secondary care. National Guideline Clearinghouse website. Available at: http://www.guideli... . Published February 2004. Accessed July 8, 2009.

COPD and asthma. National Lung Health Education Program website. Available at: . Accessed July 8, 2009.

Emphysema. American Lung Association website. Available at: http://www.lungusa... . Accessed July 8, 2009.

Petrache I, Diab K, Knox KS, et al. HIV associated pulmonary emphysema: a review of the literature and inquiry into its mechanism. Thorax. 2008;63(5):463-469. Review.

What is COPD? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.n... . March 2009. Accessed July 8, 2009.

Last reviewed September 2011 by Tajender S. Vasu, MD Last Updated: 9/1/2011