Emphysema is a type of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in which lung tissue lose their elasticity due to damage to the structures supporting the alveoli (or small air sacs) in the lungs. This condition usually affects chronic smokers.

Emphysema reduces the ability of the lungs to oxygenate blood. The alveoli are damaged and there is less surface area left for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. As a result, one of emphysema’s symptoms is becoming increasingly short of breath, preventing sufferers from carrying out strenuous activity.

Emphysema is associated with chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is a persistent inflammation of the lining of the breathing tubes (the bronchi), which is caused by bacterial infection or smoke irritation. 

As the inflammation progresses, the bronchi fill up with mucus (phlegm) and this results in chronic cough, as the body attempts to get rid of the excess mucus that is irritating the lungs. The excess mucus in the bronchi also narrows the bronchi airways, causing breathing difficulty.

Emphysema Causes and Risk Factors

Cigarette smoking is the most common and most preventable cause of emphysema. Other risk factors include the lack of an enzyme (known as alpha-1-antitrypsin) in the lungs, air pollution, family history, male sex, and age.

Emphysema Symptoms

• Chronic cough
• Chronic shortness of breath or shortness of breath with mild exertion
• Wheezing
• Bluish colouration of the skin due to lack of oxygen
• Dizziness
• Fatigue
• Temporarily absent breathing
• Breathing difficulty when lying down
• Nasal flaring and bulging eyes
• Vision abnormalities
• Anxiety, stress and tension
• Ankle, feet and leg swelling
• Unintentional weight loss
• Headache (especially in the morning)
• Excessive daytime sleepiness
• Insomnia


People with emphysema are at a higher risk of developing recurrent respiratory infections and are at increased risk for heart failure because of enlargement and strain on the right side of the heart.

Emphysema Treatment

There is no cure for emphysema. Emphysema treatment consists mainly of preventing the disease from getting worse by relieving emphysema symptoms. It is also recommended that sufferers stop smoking and avoid exposure to air pollution, dust or second-hand cigarette smoke.

Emphysema Prevention 

As emphysema is closely linked to smoking, emphysema prevention starts with quitting smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke. Smokers put themselves and their health at increasing, unnecessary risk with every pack of cigarettes and with every year they continue to smoke. 


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