What is emphysema?

Emphysema

Emphysema is a long-term (chronic), irreversible lung disease that occurs when the tiny air sacs in the lungs are damaged, usually as a result of long-term smoking. It causes difficulty breathing and shortness of breath that gets worse over time. Emphysema is often a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A rare type of emphysema is caused by the lack of a substance in the lungs called alpha-1 antitrypsin. This type of emphysema is usually inherited.

What can you expect when you have emphysema?

Emphysema gets worse over time. You cannot undo the damage to your lungs.

Over time, you may find that:

  • You get short of breath even when you do things like get dressed or fix a meal.
  • It is hard to eat or exercise.
  • You feel weaker and limit activity.

But there are things you can do to prevent more damage and feel better.

What are the symptoms of emphysema?

The main symptoms of emphysema are:

  • A cough that will not go away.
  • Mucus that comes up when you cough.
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse when you exercise.

At times, your symptoms may suddenly flare up and get much worse. This is a called an exacerbation (say "egg-ZASS-er-BAY-shun"). When this happens, your usual symptoms quickly get worse and stay bad. This can be dangerous. You may have to go to the hospital.

How is emphysema treated?

Emphysema may be treated with medicines like bronchodilators or corticosteroids. Some people also use oxygen therapy to help relieve symptoms. Ask your doctor if pulmonary rehabilitation might be right for you. It includes education, exercise, and support to help people with breathing problems.

How is emphysema diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions about your health. You may have blood tests. You may also get a chest X-ray to look at your lungs. And you may have breathing tests to find out how well your lungs work.

How can you care for yourself when you have emphysema?

If you smoke, quit or cut back as much as you can. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting. Learn to use your inhalers correctly. This will help the medicines work better. Try to avoid things that make your symptoms worse. And stay up to date on vaccines.

Emphysema

Lungs in chest, showing inside airways of a lung with detail of healthy alveoli and damaged alveoli.

Emphysema is a long-term (chronic) lung disease. With emphysema, the tiny air sacs (alveoli) at the end of the airways in the lungs are damaged. When the air sacs are damaged or destroyed, their walls break down and the sacs become larger. These larger air sacs move less oxygen into the blood. This causes problems with breathing or shortness of breath. These symptoms get worse over time. After air sacs are destroyed, they can't be replaced.

Emphysema is often caused by smoking. A rare type of emphysema is caused by the lack of a substance in the lungs called alpha1-antitrypsin. This type of emphysema is usually inherited.

What is emphysema?

Emphysema is a long-term (chronic) lung disease. In emphysema, the tiny air sacs (alveoli) at the end of the airways in the lungs are damaged. When the air sacs are damaged or destroyed, the inner walls break down and the sacs become larger. These larger air sacs move less oxygen into the blood. This causes difficulty breathing or shortness of breath that gets worse over time. After air sacs are destroyed, they cannot be replaced.

Emphysema is a type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Emphysema is usually caused by smoking. But chemical fumes, dust, or air pollution also can cause it over time. People who get it in their 30s or 40s may have a disorder that runs in families, called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. But this is rare.

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