Pronounced: em-fiss-SEE-mah

by Debra Wood, RN

En Español (Spanish Version)

* Definition  

Emphysema is a chronic obstructive disease of the lungs. The lungs contain millions of tiny air sacs called alveoli. In emphysema, the sacs lose their elasticity and air becomes trapped in the sacs. It becomes difficult to expel oxygen-depleted air from the lungs, so the normal exchange of new and used air is diminished. Emphysema is classified as a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Normal Lung vs. Emphysemic Lung  

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© 2009 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

* Causes  

Emphysema develops due to:

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Inhaling toxins or other irritants
  • Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD)—a genetic defect which can cause emphysema at an early age in nonsmokers

* Risk Factors  

These factors increase your chance of developing emphysema. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Long-term secondhand or passive smoke exposure
  • Family members with emphysema
  • Exposure to pollutants at work
  • History of frequent childhood lung infections
  • Age: 50 or older
  • Connective tissue disorders
  • HIV infection

* Symptoms  

Early symptoms include:

  • Coughing in the morning
  • Coughing up clear sputum (mucus from deep in the lungs)
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath with activity

As the disease progresses, you may experience:

  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Choking sensation when lying flat (may need to prop up with many pillows or even sleep in a chair)
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Increase in chest size (barrel chest)
  • Increased risk of serious lung infections
  • Enlargement of the right chamber of the heart
  • Heart failure
  • Coughing up thick and/or bloody mucus
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Weight loss
  • Breathing through pursed lips
  • Desire to lean forward to improve breathing
  • More frequent flare-ups (periods of more severe symptoms)

* Diagnosis  

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.

Tests may include:

  • Chest x-ray —a test that uses radiation to take pictures of structures inside the body
  • CT Scan —a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the chest
  • Blood tests to assess the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood (arterial blood gas test)
  • Lung function tests (spirometry)

* Treatment  

There is no treatment to cure emphysema. Treatment aims to ease symptoms and improve quality of life.

Treatment includes:

Smoking Cessation  

Quitting smoking slows progression of the disease. Doctors consider it the most important aspect of treatment. Smoking cessation programs may include behavior modification and medications to help you gradually taper off cigarettes.

Environmental Management  

Limiting the number of irritants in the air may help make breathing easier. Avoid smoke, dust, smog, extreme heat or cold, and high altitudes.


Although no medication will actually cure emphysema, a variety of drugs are available to help ease the symptoms and fight the complications. These include:

  • Bronchodilators—to relax the airways and open breathing passages (may be given as pills or inhaled)
  • Corticosteroids—to decrease inflammation and swelling in the breathing passages
  • Antibiotics—to fight bacterial infections
  • Expectorants—to loosen mucus and make it easier to cough up


Oxygen is given to supplement the air taken in by the body. It can increase energy levels and heart and brain function by increasing the amount of available oxygen.

Infection Prevention  

Because emphysema makes you prone to flu and pneumonia , doctors recommend an annual flu shot . Be sure to have a pneumococcal vaccine. Avoid being around people who are sick. If you think you are getting the flu, call your doctor. You may need to take an antiviral medication.

Exercise/Pulmonary Rehabilitation Programs  

Special exercises can strengthen chest muscles and make breathing easier. Physical activity builds endurance and improves quality of life. Follow your doctor's recommendations for activity levels and restrictions.

Breathing Techniques  

Special methods of breathing and breathing exercises with and without an incentive spirometer can help bring more air into the lungs and force trapped air out of the lungs.

Percussion and Postural Drainage  

This is a technique that uses special techniques of clapping on the back and chest to help loosen secretions and special positioning to help the lungs drain.

Nutrition and Fluids  

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight causes the lungs and heart to work harder.
  • Eat a healthful diet, one that is low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Eat several small meals during the day. It makes breathing easier.
  • Avoid gas-producing foods. An overly full stomach pushes up on the diaphragm, which encroaches on the lungs' space. This makes it harder to breathe.
  • Drink fluids to keep mucus thin.

Lifestyle Changes  

  • Pace your activities.
  • Learn relaxation techniques and other methods to manage stress.
  • Seek emotional support from therapists, family, and friends. Anxiety can increase the rate of respiration, making breathing more strenuous.
  • Avoid situations which might expose you to a respiratory illnesses.
  • Be sure to get a yearly flu vaccine.
  • Avoid high altitudes and extremes of temperature.


A small number of patients may benefit from surgery. Procedures used to treat emphysema include:

  • Bullectomy to remove a an area in the lung called bulla (sometimes done with laser)
  • Lung volume reduction surgery
  • Lung transplant

If you are diagnosed with emphysema, follow your doctor's instructions.

* Prevention  

You can reduce you chances of developing emphysema by:

  • Not smoking
  • Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Avoiding exposure to air pollution or irritants
  • Wearing protective gear if exposed to irritants or toxins at work

Last reviewed January 2009 by Marcin Chwistek, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Copyright © 2009 EBSCO Publishing. All rights reserved.

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