Emphysema is a lung condition that causes shortness of breath. In people with emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) are damaged. Over time, the inner walls of the air sacs weaken and rupture — creating larger air spaces instead of many small ones. This reduces the surface area of the lungs and, in turn, the amount of oxygen that reaches your bloodstream.
In addition to shortness of breath, you may also experience:
The main cause of emphysema is long-term exposure to airborne irritants, including:
People who have emphysema are also more likely to develop:
Collapsed lung (pneumothorax). A collapsed lung can be life-threatening in people who have severe emphysema, because the function of their lungs is already so compromised. This is uncommon but serious when it occurs.
Heart problems. Emphysema can increase the pressure in the arteries that connect the heart and lungs. This can cause a condition called cor pulmonale, in which a section of the heart expands and weakens.
Large holes in the lungs (bullae). Some people with emphysema develop empty spaces in the lungs called bullae. They can be as large as half the lung. In addition to reducing the amount of space available for the lung to expand, giant bullae can increase your risk of pneumothorax.
To prevent emphysema, don't smoke and avoid breathing secondhand smoke. Wear a mask to protect your lungs if you work with chemical fumes or dust.
Your doctor will begin by getting your background and medical history, asking in particular if you are a smoker and if you are around hazardous fumes or pollutants at work or at home.
Various tests can detect emphysema, including:
Emphysema and COPD can't be cured, but treatments can help relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
Depending upon the severity of your symptoms, your doctor might suggest:
These drugs can help relieve coughing, shortness of breath and breathing problems by relaxing constricted airways.
Corticosteroid drugs inhaled as aerosol sprays reduce inflammation and may help relieve shortness of breath.
If you have a bacterial infection, like acute bronchitis or pneumonia, antibiotics are appropriate.
A pulmonary rehabilitation program can teach you breathing exercises and techniques that may help reduce your breathlessness and improve your ability to exercise.
You'll also receive advice about proper nutrition. In the early stages of emphysema, many people need to lose weight, while people with late-stage emphysema often need to gain weight.
If you have severe emphysema with low blood oxygen levels, using oxygen regularly at home and when you exercise may provide some relief. Many people use oxygen 24 hours a day. It's usually administered via narrow tubing that fits into your nostrils.