Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at June 23, 2016

Emphysema is a disease that affects the lungs of adults, and it is classified as one of the chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) that can occur in the lungs of individuals who are exposed to certain types of contamination such as dust, smoke or chemicals. Patients diagnosed with emphysema may also have chronic bronchitis, making a diagnosis more difficult. By the time a patient is diagnosed with emphysema, they have probably had the condition for several years, and there is already severe lung damage that is irreversible. 


Definition & Facts

Most patients diagnosed with emphysema have smoked tobacco products such as cigars or cigarettes for many years, leading to the lung damage that causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The condition of emphysema causes a restriction in the airflow throughout the lungs, making it difficult for a patient to breathe normally. The damage from emphysema is irreversible and progressive. However, the condition progresses at a different rate for each patient. 

Symptoms & Complaints

There are numerous symptoms and complaints concerning emphysema, including:


Emphysema is caused by the increased mucus production from inflammation, and this leads to the destruction of the lung’s alveoli (or air sacs). The spaces between the air sacs will enlarge, and a patient has more problems with breathing. As an individual with emphysema has problems with their breathing, they begin to wheeze and cough, leading to more inflammation and mucus production. The circle of symptoms is what causes the condition to progress, and eventually, a patient’s lungs are damaged severely.

Physicians know that the primary reason why patients develop emphysema is because they have smoked cigarettes for many years, and some patients continue this unhealthy habit after a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In addition to the dangers from tobacco smoke, physicians are learning that more patients are developing emphysema from smoking marijuana. Unfortunately, there are also cases of patients developing emphysema from breathing secondhand smoke in their own homes or in work environments such as restaurants or bars.

Some patients have developed emphysema from the pollutants in the air inside a manufacturing plant while working on a daily basis or from the pollutants in the air outside. There is also a rare inherited condition that causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease because it reduces the amount of protein in the lung’s tissue, affecting this organ’s elasticity. In most cases, the individuals diagnosed with emphysema are between the ages of 40 and 60, and it affects males and females equally. 

Diagnosis & Tests

A physician will collect a patient’s medical history to learn more about their exposure to pollutants such as dust, chemicals and smoke. It is important to know about relatives who have had lung problems because emphysema is more common in some families.

There are several medical tests that can help a physician determine if a patient has emphysema, including a chest X-ray, CT scan, and a lung function examination. A lung function test is an important way to determine if a patient’s lungs are filling up with air, and this type of test is performed with a spirometer that a patient blows into.

In addition to these tests, a physician must determine if the oxygen in the air is flowing optimally into a patient’s bloodstream. A phlebotomist will take blood samples to determine if oxygen is entering a patient’s bloodstream and carbon dioxide is leaving their body. 

Treatment & Therapy

There is no cure for emphysema, but a physician can provide medications and treatments to relieve a patient’s discomfort. If a patient has chronic bronchitis or a lung infection caused by bacteria, then a patient needs to take antibiotics.

There are also corticosteroid drugs that patients can breathe to relieve shortness of breath, and these items are similar to the devices used by asthmatic individuals. Overusing corticosteroids can lead to complications such as cataracts in the eye, diabetes mellitus, or high blood pressure. A physician may prescribe a different form of bronchodilator to relax a patient’s constricted airways to avoid these complications.

There are also therapeutic treatments for emphysema that include supplemental oxygen from tanks, adding nutrients to the diet or learning new ways to breathe to increase lung capacity. If a patient has advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, they may need a surgical procedure to remove sections of damaged lung tissue or to have a lung transplant

Prevention & Prophylaxis

To avoid additional complications from emphysema, a patient must stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. In addition, it is vital to stay away from the odors of perfumes, room deodorizers and scented candles. Changes in air temperature can lead to breathing problems when an individual has emphysema, and a patient must maintain a home’s climate-control equipment by changing filters in order to purify the air.

It is essential to prevent a respiratory infection, and patients are advised to get yearly pneumonia and influenza vaccinations. For individuals without emphysema, it is possible to avoid the condition by not smoking, staying away from secondhand smoke and wearing a protective mask while working with chemicals and dust.