What is emphysema?

Emphysema affects your ability to breathe and is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. You have airways in your lungs called bronchioles and at the end of those airways are tiny air sacs called alveoli. Alveoli and the cells that support them usually hold your bronchioles open so air that can pass through and oxygen can be distributed into your bloodstream, but if you have emphysema, your alveoli get damaged and your bronchioles may collapse, making it hard to breathe. Exposure to pollutants -- usually cigarette smoke -- is the most common cause of emphysema, and chronic lower respiratory disease like COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United Sates.
Lyall A. Gorenstein, MD
Thoracic Surgery (Cardiothoracic Vascular)
Emphysema is a progressive destructive lung disease in which the walls between the tiny air sacs in the lungs are damaged. As a result, the lungs lose their elasticity and breathing out becomes more and more difficult. Air remains trapped in the overinflated lungs. Emphysema patients report increasing shortness of breath, especially with activity, as well as variable degrees of coughing and wheezing, and irreversible airflow obstruction. Heredity is thought to play a part in the tendency to develop emphysema, but the disease is clearly worsened by smoking, air pollution, exposure to dust and fumes and lung infections.

Continue Learning about Emphysema

How can I care for someone with emphysema?
Honor Society of Nursing (STTI)Honor Society of Nursing (STTI)
Your responsibilities as a caregiver for someone with emphysema will depend on the severity of the c...
More Answers
Can non-smokers get emphysema?
Dr. Daniel R. Spogen, MDDr. Daniel R. Spogen, MD
Non-smokers can get emphysema, although smoking is the most important risk factor for the developmen...
More Answers
How do other illnesses affect emphysema?
Honor Society of Nursing (STTI)Honor Society of Nursing (STTI)
There are a number of illnesses that may affect your emphysema by making symptoms worse. The flu, pn...
More Answers
Is emphysema life threatening?
Jamie McGinnJamie McGinn
Emphysema is a type of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and can be life threatening due ...
More Answers

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.