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Emphysema gradually damages the air sacs in your lungs, making you progressively shorter of breath. It’s one of several diseases known collectively as a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The main symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath, which usually begins gradually. You may start avoiding activities that cause you to be short of breath. Eventually, the condition causes shortness of breath even while resting.


Factors that increase your risk of developing emphysema include:

  • Smoking. Smoking is the leading cause of emphysema. The condition is most likely to develop in cigarette smokers, but cigar and pipe smokers also are susceptible.
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke. Regular exposure to secondhand smoke increases emphysema risk.
  • Occupational exposure to fumes or dust. If you breathe fumes from certain chemicals or dust from grain, cotton, wood, or mining products, you’re more likely to develop emphysema.
  • Exposure to indoor and outdoor pollution. Breathing indoor pollutants, such as fumes from heating fuel, as well as outdoor pollutants, such as car exhaust, increases your risk.

People who have emphysema, especially severe emphysema, are at increased risk of developing other health conditions including a collapsed lung, large holes in the lungs, and heart problems.


To determine if you have emphysema, you may undergo lung function tests to measure how much air your lungs can hold and how well they deliver oxygen to your bloodstream.

Emphysema can’t be cured, but treatments can relieve symptoms and slow it progression.

  • Medications

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may recommend:
Bronchodilators. These drugs help relieve coughing, shortness of breath, and breathing problems by relaxing constricted airways. They’re not as effective in treating emphysema as they are in treating asthma or chronic bronchitis.

Inhaled steroids. Corticosteroids inhaled as aerosol sprays may help relieve shortness of breath. Prolonged use may increase your risk of side effects.

  • Therapy

Other treatments include:
Pulmonary rehabilitation. It includes breathing exercises and other techniques to reduce breathlessness and improve your activity level.

Nutrition therapy. In the early stages of emphysema, many people need to lose weight, while people with late-stage emphysema often need to gain weight.

Supplemental oxygen. It increases blood oxygen levels. The oxygen typically is administered via tubing that fits into your nostrils.

  • Surgery

In certain situations, surgery may be performed to remove small wedges of damaged tissue. This may help remaining lung tissue expand and work more efficiently, improving breathing.


  • Stop smoking. This is the most important measure you can take.
  • Avoid other respiratory irritants. This includes secondhand smoke, paint or chemical fumes, and automobile exhaust.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise increases your lung capacity.
  • Avoid cold air. In cold weather, wear a cold-air mask or scarf over your mouth and nose before going outside.
  • Prevent respiratory infections. Get pneumonia vaccinations as advised by your doctor and annual flu shots.

         Excerpt From: The Mayo Clinic. “Mayo Clinic A to Z Health Guide”

Tests to consider

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