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Shortness of breath is the most common symptom of emphysema. Cough, sometimes caused by the production of mucus, and wheezing may also be symptoms of emphysema. You may notice that your tolerance for exercise decreases over time. Emphysema usually develops slowly. You may not have any acute episodes of shortness of breath. Slow deterioration is the rule, and it may go unnoticed. This is especially the case if you are a smoker or have other medical problems that limit your ability to exercise.
One of the hallmark signs of emphysema is "pursed-lipbreathing." The person with emphysema struggles to exhale completely, in an attempt to empty trapped air. They purse their lips, leaving only a small opening. Then, when they exhale, the lips block the flow of air, increasing pressure in the collapsed airways, and opening them, allowing the trapped air to empty.
People with emphysema may develop a "barrel chest," where the distance from the chest to the back, which is normally less than the distance side to side, becomes more pronounced. This is a direct result of air becoming trapped behind obstructed airways.
When to Seek Medical Care
If you have new or worsening shortness of breath, seek medical attention from your doctor. Shortness of breath can occur with other diseases, particularly heart disease and other lung diseases, so it is important not to overlook or minimize this symptom. A gradual decrease in the ability to exercise or perform daily activities, a persistent cough, and wheezing also suggest a visit to the doctor.
Because cigarette smoking is such a dangerous risk factor for emphysema, you may also wish to contact your doctor for help with making a plan to quit smoking, even in the absence of shortness of breath or other symptoms. Doctors can offer you many options to help you stop smoking. The support from a doctor may make the process easier than doing it alone. Many recent studies have shown that up to 25% of smokers may have COPD and not know it.
Shortness of breath should always be taken seriously, especially if it comes on suddenly or if it gets worse over a relatively short period of time; this situation is usually considered a medical emergency so medical care should be sought immediately.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/10/2016
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