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Diseases A–Z

Emphysema

Emphysema is a chronic (long-term) lung disease that can get worse over time. It's usually caused by smoking. Having emphysema means some of the air sacs in your lungs are damaged, making it hard to breathe.

Emphysema is part of a lung disease known as COPD.

We offer lots of information on COPD, including emphysema, in our COPD section.

1. Healthy alveolus 2. Alveolus with emphysema
1. Healthy alveolus
2. Alveolus with emphysema
What causes emphysema?

Emphysema can be caused by one or a combination of these things:

  • Cigarette smoking: Most cases of emphysema are caused by cigarette smoking. Cigarette smoke reaches deep into the lungs and causes permanent damage. If you have emphysema from cigarettes, the best way to stop your lung damage is to quit smoking as soon as possible. It's never too late to quit smoking.
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency: Some people have emphysema because of a rare genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. People with alpha-1 are missing an enzyme that protects their lungs. Some people with alpha-1 deficiency get emphysema without ever having smoked. Other people get emphysema from the combination of smoking and having alpha-1 deficiency.
  • Air pollution, including second-hand smoke: There is some evidence that air pollution can contribute to people getting emphysema, especially in people who also smoke.
Signs and symptoms of emphysema
  • shortness of breath — feeling like you can't get your breath out
  • a barrel-shaped chest
  • wheezing
  • feeling tired (fatigue)
  • losing weight without trying

People might think that feeling short of breath is a normal sign of aging — but it's not. If you have these signs and symptoms, see your doctor. Ask for spirometry, a simple test that measures how much air you move out of your lungs.

These signs and symptoms will not go away over time — they will get worse. The sooner you see the doctor, the sooner you can find out how to feel better.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of emphysema, now called COPD.
How is emphysema diagnosed?

To figure out if you have emphysema, your doctor may do some of these tests:

  • physical exam, including listening to your lungs and breathing sounds
  • spirometry — this test measures how much air you can move out of your lungs
  • chest X-ray
  • blood tests

Read more about tests to diagnose emphysema (COPD).

Treatment for emphysema

There is no cure for emphysema, but it is possible to slow down the disease and make it easier to live with the symptoms.

Some treatments for emphysema:

Read more about treatment for COPD (including emphysema).

What can I expect with emphysema?

People with emphysema can live for a long time after they are diagnosed. If you have emphysema, how long you'll live depends on many things:

  • what age you were diagnosed at
  • how bad your lung damage is
  • whether you keep smoking, cut back or quit (cutting back is a start, quitting is the best!)
  • what kind of medical care and treatment you get
  • what other health problems you might have

People with emphysema eventually die from it, or from a complication of it.

Complications of emphysema:
  • recurring chest infections, including pneumonia, the flu (influeza), cold and the common cold.
  • pulmonary hypertension: unusually high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs
  • cor pulmonale: enlargement and strain on the right side of the heart. This can lead to heart failure.

If you have emphysema and you smoke, it's important to quit smoking. See your doctor to get proper treatment so that you'll live as long and as comfortable a life as possible. Lots of people with emphysema/COPD find ways to enjoy a happy and productive life despite their disease.

It's also important to talk to your doctor and family about what kind of care you will need in future years, and what you can do now to get ready for the future.

Why quitting smoking helps improve emphysema symptoms

Emphysema gets worse over time if you continue to smoke or breathe dirty air. The damage doesn't stop until you stop smoking and stop breathing dirty air. By quitting smoking now, you can't undo the damage that's already done, but you can protect your lungs from any more damage.

Where can I get more information, help and support?

If you or someone you love has COPD (emphysema), you can get free, confidential advice and support through our BreathWorks COPD helpline. A nurse or respiratory therapist with expert knowledge of COPD (emphysema) will answer your questions.

Call the Lung Association's free BreathWorks COPD Helpline: 1-866-717-2673.

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Learn more about COPD (COPD is the new name for emphysema)

COPD basics

COPD treatment

Get help for COPD
Living with COPD more tips on living with COPD


Faces of COPD:

Personal stories of COPD patients and health-care professionals



BreathWorks: Help for People with COPD
BreathWorks is The Lung Association’s national COPD program.