Emphysema is a lung condition that causes shortness of breath. In people with emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) are damaged. Over time, the inner walls of the air sacs weaken and rupture — creating larger air spaces instead of many small ones. This reduces the surface area of the lungs and, in turn, the amount of oxygen that reaches your bloodstream.
When you exhale, the damaged alveoli don't work properly and old air becomes trapped, leaving no room for fresh, oxygen-rich air to enter.
Most people with emphysema also have chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is inflammation of the tubes that carry air to your lungs (bronchial tubes), which leads to a persistent cough.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two conditions that make up chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Treatment may slow the progression of COPD, but it can't reverse the damage.
Emphysema damages the inner walls of the lungs' air sacs (alveoli), causing them to eventually rupture. This creates one larger air space instead of many small ones and reduces the surface area available for gas exchange.
You can have emphysema for many years without noticing any signs or symptoms. The main symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath, which usually begins gradually.
You may start avoiding activities that cause you to be short of breath, so the symptom doesn't become a problem until it starts interfering with daily tasks. Emphysema eventually causes shortness of breath even while you're at rest.
See your doctor if you've had unexplained shortness of breath for several months, especially if it's getting worse or it's interfering with your daily activities. Don't ignore it by telling yourself it's because you're aging or out of shape. Seek immediate medical attention if:
The main cause of emphysema is long-term exposure to airborne irritants, including:
Rarely, emphysema is caused by an inherited deficiency of a protein that protects the elastic structures in the lungs. It's called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency emphysema.
Factors that increase your risk of developing emphysema include:
People who have emphysema are also more likely to develop:
To prevent emphysema, don't smoke and avoid breathing secondhand smoke. Wear a mask to protect your lungs if you work with chemical fumes or dust.
To determine if you have emphysema, your doctor will ask about your medical history and do a physical exam. Your doctor may recommend a variety of tests.
A chest X-ray can help support a diagnosis of advanced emphysema and rule out other causes of shortness of breath. But the chest X-ray can also show normal findings if you have emphysema.
Computerized tomography (CT) scans combine X-ray images taken from many different directions to create cross-sectional views of internal organs. CT scans can be useful for detecting and diagnosing emphysema. You may also have a CT scan if you're a candidate for lung surgery.
Blood taken from an artery in your wrist can be tested to determine how well your lungs transfer oxygen into, and remove carbon dioxide from, your bloodstream.
These noninvasive tests measure how much air your lungs can hold and how well the air flows in and out of your lungs. They can also measure how well your lungs deliver oxygen to your bloodstream. One of the most common tests uses a simple instrument called a spirometer, which you blow into.
A spirometer is a diagnostic device that measures the amount of air you're able to breathe in and out and the time it takes you to exhale completely after you take a deep breath.
Emphysema and COPD can't be cured, but treatments can help relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
Depending upon the severity of your symptoms, your doctor might suggest:
Depending on the severity of your emphysema, your doctor may suggest one or more different types of surgery, including:
If you have emphysema, you can take a number of steps to halt its progression and to protect yourself from complications:
The shortness of breath associated with emphysema can severely limit your ability to participate in daily activities. Many people become withdrawn and depressed.
To help you cope with the changes emphysema has made in your life, you might want to:
Your first appointment to check for emphysema may be with your primary doctor or with a specialist in lung diseases (pulmonologist).
Before your appointment, you might want to write a list that answers the following questions:
Your doctor may ask some of the following questions: