Emphysema is a long-term disease of the lungs. It is a problem with the tiny air sacs that make up the lungs. These tiny elastic sacs should stretch to fill with air and then get smaller as air moves out of the lungs. Emphysema is caused by the destruction of these air sacs. This makes it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs. Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Normal Lung versus Emphysemic Lung
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Emphysema is caused by damage to the air sacs of the lung. This damage may be caused by:
  • Smoking
  • Inhaling toxins or other irritants
  • Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD)—a genetic defect which can cause emphysema at an early age

Risk Factors

Emphysema is more common in people over 40 years old. Other factors that may increase your risk of emphysema include:
  • Smoking
  • Long-term secondhand or passive smoke exposure
  • Family members with emphysema
  • Exposure to pollutants at work
  • History of frequent childhood lung infections


Early symptoms include:
  • Coughing
  • Increased sputum production (mucus from deep in the lungs)
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath with activity
As the disease progresses, you may have:
  • Increased shortness of breath.
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Choking sensation when lying flat. You may need to prop up with pillows or sleep in a chair.
  • Fatigue.
  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Barrel chest, which is an increase in chest size.
  • Increased risk of serious lung infections.
  • Heart problems.
  • Coughing up thick and/or bloody mucus.
  • Weight loss.
  • Breathing through pursed lips.
  • Desire to lean forward to improve breathing.
  • More frequent flare-ups, which are periods of more severe symptoms.

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