What is Emphysema?
Emphysema is a long-lasting (chronic) disease of the lungs associated with breathlessness, chronic cough, excessive sputum and progressive loss of use of lung function.

  • In emphysema, there is permanent enlargement of the tiny air sacs in the lungs (called alveoli) due to the destruction of the walls between the small alveoli  
  • Destruction of the alveoli walls causes impaired transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide into and out of the blood.

Doctors know that changes due to damage in the lungs follow a pattern that explains why the above symptoms occur:

  • The destruction of the alveoli walls with their elastic fibres makes the lungs stiffer or less elastic and makes it more difficult to breathe.  
  • Loss of elasticity leads to the collapse of the air passages (bronchioles), so that air cannot move out of the lungs properly and the air tends to get trapped inside the lungs.  
  • The reduced expansion of the lung during the next breath reduces the amount of air that is inhaled. As a result, less air for the exchange of gases gets into the lungs.

How do you get Emphysema?
Doctors know that 80-90% of cases are due to tobacco smoking. Chemicals in tobacco smoke are known to attack the lung tissue and cause damage to the air sacs. These irritant chemicals also produce inflammation of the air passages and cause other diseases like long-lasting (chronic) bronchitis, which is often seen in patients who develop emphysema.

How serious is Emphysema?
Emphysema is a serious condition and can be life-threatening. Though it is a condition in which changes in the lungs are not reversible, its symptoms and progression can often be slowed down with lifestyle changes and appropriate use of medicines.

Emphysema results in inefficient and difficult breathing. In addition, because of the reduced capacity to exchange gases with each breath, it is necessary to breathe more frequently. Because of the discomfort and incapacity that can result from this, it also affects the quality of life of the patient.

How long does Emphysema last?
Once emphysema develops it is not reversible and therefore is present for life from then onwards.

How is Emphysema treated?
Emphysema is treated with drugs called bronchodilators that open the airways by relaxing the smaller air passages (called bronchioles), making it easier to fill and empty the lungs.

The most important treatment, however, is stopping cigarette smoking. Patients who continue to smoke have a more rapid deterioration in lung function when compared to others who stop.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised:

Diseases and Conditions Center

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