What is Emphysema?

This is a progressive long term lung disease and is a type of Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The reason that it is called this type of disease is that the lung tissue that is around the small air sacs is destroyed. Emphysema happens these air sacs are destroyed gradually and you slowly become short of breath. There are thousands of these little air sacs in each lung. This group of diseases that emphysema is part of in the United States, it is the number four cause of death and the death rate seems to be increasing. In the United States, there are approximately ten million people that have emphysema.

Emphysema Symptoms

This is one disease of the lungs in which you can have this medical condition for years without noticing any symptoms. Because emphysema is a lung disease the major symptom is being short of breath which happens when you exhale, not inhale like other respiratory diseases. In the beginning it is difficult to detect emphysema based on this symptom because it could be due to other problems or conditions. This symptom will usually start out gradually and get worse as it progresses. When you notice that you are starting to feel short of breath you may begin to avoid any activities that would cause this symptom. Being short of breath will not really become a problem or concern until it starts to interfere with things you do on a daily basis. It can even cause a person who is resting to feel short of breath the longer you have emphysema.

You should see your physician when the symptom of shortness of breath:

  • Has been a problem for a long time, especially if it is interfering with things you do on a daily basis or seems to be getting worse.
  • Makes talking difficult
  • Turns your fingernails or lips gray or blue
  • Makes your heartbeat extremely fast
  • Makes you not as alert mentally as you should be or use to be.
  • Makes you breathe rapidly, called tachypnea. Normally a person’s respiration rate is between twelve and twenty but is much higher in people with emphysema.
  • Gives you a persistent, chronic cough that just does not seem to go away and you have had for a long time
  • Gives you excess mucus production.

A person’s chest may look like a barrel which is caused when their chest gets expanded but this is a symptom that usually occurs when emphysema is in an advance stage. It happens because a huge amount of air is trapped inside your air sacs and you cannot exhale it out easily.


The number one cause of emphysema is smoking, both marijuana and tobacco and possibly second hand smoke. It can also be caused by being exposed to airborne irritants for a long time such as:

  • Fumes from a manufacturing plant
  • Silica and coal dust
  • Pollution from the air

It is found that people who smoke are six times more likely to get emphysema. Although smoking is the number one cause of emphysema many people that smoke heavily do not get the disease but it is not known why.

A minor cause of emphysema is having a deficiency in the Alpha-1 antitrypsin which is a protein that naturally circulates in the blood. The job of this protein is to make sure that the white blood cells are kept from causing damage to the normal tissues. White blood cells are used to fight infection and inside the cells there is a substance that they use when they fight infection. If the deficiency is severe it has been found that many people with this severe deficiency will get emphysema.


In order for a physician to diagnose emphysema they will usually order imaging tests like:

Chest x-ray

This type of imaging test can help the physician rule out other reasons why you may be short of breath and to help confirm a diagnosis of emphysema in an advance stage. Doing just this type of x-ray is not enough for the physician to make a diagnosis that is accurate so other images will be done.

Computerized tomography

This is better known as a CT Scan. It till take images done by x-rays from a variety of directions in order to create views of the internal organs by cross-sectional.

They physician may also order a blood test with the blood taken from your artery located in the wrist. This test is to see how well your lungs are removing carbon dioxide and transferring oxygen in the bloodstream.

They may also test your lung function:

  • To see just how much air your lungs are able to hold.
  • To see just how well the air flows in and out of the lungs.
  • To see just how well the oxygen is delivered from your lungs to the bloodstream

A common instrument the physician uses to test just how much air you can blow out is a spirometer. You blow in it and it measures your lung power.


When a person is diagnosed with emphysema there are treatments that can be done to slow the diseases progress and to help relieve symptoms but there is not cure.


  • Medications to help you stop smoking.
  • Medication to help you relieve your shortness of breath, help relieve coughing, and breathing troubles by prescribing a bronchodilators. They help your constricted airways to relax.
  • If you have a bacterial infection the physician may prescribe an antibiotic
  • To also help with your shortness of breath the physician may prescribe steroids that are inhaled


If the oxygen level in your blood is low the physician may put you on supplemental oxygen to use when you exercise and at home. Some with emphysema use this type of oxygen twenty-four hours a day.
You may go into pulmonary rehab which will teach you breathing techniques and exercises to help decrease your shortness of breath and help give you the ability to exercise.


Depending on how severe the emphysema is your physician may suggest having one or more these surgeries.

  • Lung volume reduction where small pieces of your damaged lung is removed so the remaining lung tissue can work better.
  • Lung transplant if all other options are not working and you have severe case of emphysema


The prognosis can be bleak because of all the damage that has already been done to your lungs and this damage is not reversible but the actual prognosis depends on many factors such as if you are smoking or not, the stage of emphysema, your lifestyle and diet, the age of the person with emphysema, and if there are any other medical conditions, including any other lung infections.

Emphysema Life Expectancy

Because it is a chronic lung infection, the damage is not reversible, what stage of emphysema the you are in, and if you are still contributing to the damage by still smoking the life expectancy will vary from person to person.


This is a general idea of the life expectancy of a person in various stages of emphysema but you also have to factor in the other things.

  • Stage 1  (mild)—eight out of ten patient survive four years
  • Stage 2  (moderate)—one out of ten patients survive six to seven years
  • Stage 3  (severe) —fifty percent survive approximately four years
  • Stage 4  (very severe) — very low survival rates.

Emphysema Pictures

Pictures of Emphysema…


emphysema pictures

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