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Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that results to the destruction of the air sacs in the lungs. This leads to diminished lung capacity and difficulty breathing. Individuals over the age of 45 are likely to develop the condition.

Smoking is the main cause of emphysema and the risk is high the longer the individual smokes. It is rare for non-smokers to develop the condition due to an inherited deficiency in alpha-1 antitrypsin which is a protein produced by the liver that protects the lung tissue.

The distinctive symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath that steadily develops over time and can become severe.

What are the indications?

The distinctive symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath that steadily develops over time and can become severe.

Aside from the characteristic symptom of shortness of breath, the condition can be accompanied by other symptoms such as:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Coughing up clear, light brown, yellow or green mucus
  • Clubbing of the fingers and toes
  • Wheezing

Risk factors

Various factors increase the risk for developing emphysema such as:

  • Smoking
  • Inhaling dust or chemical fumes
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Being exposed to air pollution
  • Having pre-existing lung diseases
  • Family history of alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
  • Occupations involving livestock, textiles, grain or coal


The treatment for emphysema starts by consulting a doctor. The objective of treatment is to improve breathing. In severe cases that do not respond to therapy or accompanied by significant bleeding, surgical intervention is required especially resection or even a lung transplant in rare cases.

The other treatment options include the following:

  • Bronchodilators to open the airways
  • Chest physical therapy to promote coughing up of the sputum
  • Inhaled corticosteroids and cholinergic agents
  • Oxygen therapy if the blood oxygen level is low

More Information / Disclaimer

The information posted on this page on emphysema is for learning purposes only. Learn to recognize and manage respiratory conditions including emphysema by taking a standard first aid course with one of our training providers.

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