Emphysema: How You Get It and How to Fight It

Emphysema is a chronic respiratory condition most often caused by the destruction of lung tissue by toxins contained in cigarette smoke. This, in turn, leads to chronic overinflation of the lungs, greatly decreasing their ability to function.

Emphysema is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that progresses over a period of time. COPD also includes chronic bronchitis. Although one type may predominate, most people with COPD have some of both.

Emphysema results in destruction of the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs. Oxygen is delivered to the lungs and carbon dioxide is carried from the lungs across the walls of the alveoli. As more and more alveoli are damaged, it becomes harder and harder for the lungs to function, which can cause these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increasing difficulty exercising
  • Great difficulty exhaling
  • Chronic coughing
  • Cough with mucus production

As the disease progresses, breathing becomes increasingly difficult. In its most severe stage, virtually any physical activity becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.

What Causes Emphysema?

Emphysema is usually the result of long-term exposure to harmful particles or gases, such as:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Occupational dusts and chemicals
  • Indoor air pollutants, such as fuel burned in confined spaces
  • Outdoor air pollutants

Diagnosis and Treatment

When a person complains of the chronic presence of the symptoms of emphysema, a physical exam and various lung function tests (spirometry) are done to confirm the diagnosis. Chest x-rays may also be done.

Since, at present, emphysema cannot be cured, the goals of treatment are to:

  • Relieve the symptoms of the disease
  • Prevent further loss of lung function

Relieving Symptoms

To relieve symptoms, one or more of the following treatments may be used:

  • Bronchodilators—to help relax the lung's airways
  • Anticholinergics—to help open the airway passages
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation—to help improve lung capacity and general overall physical condition
  • Anti-inflammatory medications—to decrease inflammation and swelling in the breathing passages
  • Oxygen therapy—may be used for those with severely impaired lung function

Emphysema may also be treated with surgery, such as:

  • Bullectomy—removal of an area on the lungs that has formed a large cavity (bullous)
  • Lung volume reduction surgery—removal of seriously damaged part of the lung
  • Lung transplant

Stop Smoking

To slow emphysema's progression, the agent causing it must be removed. Since long-term smoking causes an overwhelming number of cases of emphysema, the only effective way to slow the progression of emphysema is to quit smoking.

There are many smoking cessation therapies available. Your doctor may also be able to prescribe a medication that may help you stop smoking.


To prevent the onset of emphysema:

  • If you smoke, quit. Talk to your doctor about strategies to quit.
  • Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Avoid workplace and environmental pollutants.

Emphysema does not suddenly occur. It develops over a long period of time. At the first sign of any of the symptoms, talk to your doctor. The sooner emphysema is treated, the better the outcomes.


American Lung Association

Smoke Free


Health Canada

The Lung Association


COPD. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated March 21, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2016.

Explore COPD. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: Updated July 31, 2013. Accessed May 31, 2016.

Tutic M, Lardinois D, Imfeld S, Korom S, et al. Lung-volume reduction surgery as an alternative or bridging procedure to lung transplantation. Ann Thorac Surg. 2006;82(1):208-213.

Last reviewed June 2016 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 5/31/2016