Emphysema | Pulmonology & Critical Care | Loyola Medicine


Overview and Facts about Emphysema

Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can damage the lungs and cause difficulty breathing.

The condition causes small air sacs in the lungs to slowly thin, weaken, and rupture, causing lung damage over a long period of time. This limits the amount of oxygen your lungs can take in. As you exhale, your lungs are also less able to expel carbon dioxide. The condition is strongly linked to smoking.

Signs and Symptoms of Emphysema

In its early stages, emphysema may not cause any symptoms, and symptoms can appear gradually. Many people with early emphysema notice a shortness of breath during physical activity. However, as the condition progresses, you might have trouble breathing even when at rest. In the later stages of emphysema, you may also have a persistent cough.

Seek medical help immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Blue- or gray-tinged skin
  • Difficulty taking a deep breath

These symptoms can suggest that your lungs aren't taking in enough oxygen to support healthy cell functioning.

Causes and Risk Factors of Emphysema

Smoking is the leading cause of emphysema. Both tobacco and marijuana smoke can trigger emphysema. More rarely, the condition can be caused by other airborne irritants, such as air pollution, dust, and chemical fumes.

If you smoke, it's important to understand that other members of your household can also be at risk. Exposure to secondhand smoke can sometimes cause emphysema. Repeated exposure to indoor or outdoor pollution can also cause the condition.

In rare cases, emphysema can be caused by an inherited condition. People with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency may develop emphysema even if they have never smoked.

Tests and Diagnosis of Emphysema

Early emphysema can be difficult to diagnose, since many different medical conditions can cause shortness of breath. Therefore, your doctor may need to perform a variety of tests to determine the cause of your symptoms.

Your doctor may recommend a chest X-ray. This test alone cannot diagnose emphysema, but it can help rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. A CT scan can also provide detailed images of your lungs and help your doctor check for signs of emphysema.

Your doctor may also order several blood tests and lung-function tests. These tests show the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. This information can help your doctor find out how severe your emphysema is.

Treatment and Care for Emphysema

There is no cure for emphysema, but treatment can help relieve symptoms and prevent complications. If you are diagnosed with emphysema, your doctor may recommend a variety of medications to improve your lung function. A proper diet and regular exercise can also help control your symptoms.

Your doctor may refer you to a pulmonary or critical care specialist for additional treatment. You may also need to work with a dietician or pulmonary rehabilitation specialist.

If your emphysema is advanced, surgery can help remove damaged lung tissue to improve your breathing. In rare cases, a lung transplant may also be required.