Authored by Revere Health

What is Emphysema?

December 8, 2016 | Pulmonology

What is Emphysema?

Like other organs in the body, the lungs are affected by the habits we keep in our daily lives. Everything from what we put in our bodies to the places we live and the air we breathe can have a major impact on lung health and enough negative elements here can create big problems – even for people born with perfect lungs.

One great example here is emphysema, a disease that slowly damages your lungs over time and makes it more difficult to breathe. The leading cause of emphysema? Not genetic risk or some birth defect, but smoking cigarettes. That’s right, a lifestyle choice is the primary cause of this disease.

What other factors can cause emphysema, and how is it diagnosed and treated? Here’s a breakdown.


What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is just one of a few diseases that falls under the umbrella of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – others include bronchitis and asthma. Patients with COPD feel shortness of breath over time, but many cases aren’t picked up for years because people think their symptoms are part of getting older.

In cases of emphysema, air sacs in your lungs called alveoli are damaged along their inner walls to the point where they rupture. Rather than many tight pockets of air like the lungs prefer, emphysema patients develop one larger pocket in the lungs as more alveoli rupture. This actually decreases the amount of oxygen that’s able to hit the bloodstream – old air is trapped when you breathe out, and new oxygen can’t get in as easily.

Shortness of breath is the number one symptom of emphysema, and often the only symptom. It usually starts out moderately before getting worse over time. If this condition becomes regular enough, it might be time to see a doctor and find out if you are suffering from emphysema. If it ever becomes so severe that you can’t complete daily tasks, or if you notice extremities like fingers or lips turning blue, call 911 or see a doctor right away.

In its worst cases, emphysema can raise the risk of life-threatening conditions like collapsed lungs, heart problems and holes in the lungs.


Causes and Risk Factors

As we mentioned earlier, smoking is the number one known cause of emphysema. It’s just one of several airborne toxins which, if inhaled over a long period of time, can cause emphysema. Here’s a full list:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Marijuana smoke
  • Workplace fumes (usually from warehouses and manufacturing plants)
  • Pollution

These toxins are direct causes of emphysema. There are also several other general risk factors that may not directly cause the condition, but can make it more likely:

  • Age – people over 40 are at higher risk, usually because their lungs have had more years to inhale harmful toxins
  • All smoking – not just cigarettes, and not just one’s own smoking. Cigars, pipes, and even secondhand smoke are all risk factors
  • Workplace pollution


Diagnosis Tests

There are several kinds of tests to help diagnose emphysema, split up into a few broad categories.

Lung Function Tests:

There are a few different kinds of tests available, and they help with both diagnosing emphysema and tracking its progress over time. They’re designed to measure how well your lungs are processing oxygen into the bloodstream, and usually don’t require anything other than breathing how you’re told.

Lab/Blood Tests:

In some cases, doctors will take a sample of blood and test it in a lab to see how well your lungs are sending oxygen into the bloodstream.

Imaging Tests:

Usually either a chest X-ray or a CT scan for when a single X-ray can’t pick up everything going on in the lungs.



Depending on the severity of a case, there are a few different treatment possibilities once you’ve been diagnosed with emphysema.

  • Lung rehabilitation: Generally through a combination of breathing exercises and changes to nutrition. For severe cases, some people also keep an oxygen machine at home and use it regularly
  • Medication: Drugs to treat shortness of breath are often prescribed, and steroids might be an option for certain long term cases. A doctor will also prescribe antibiotics if emphysema has created an infection in the lungs
  • Surgery: In severe cases, emphysema might require surgery might. Sometimes this is to remove pieces of the damaged lungs, and sometimes it’s a lung transplant

It’s important to remember that once you have emphysema, it can’t be fully cured. Treatment after diagnosis is all about managing the disease, but this is more possible than ever with the modern medicine available to us.


Revere Health Pulmonology offers specialized treatment options for asthma, COPD, chronic cough and shortness of breath.





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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.