Symptoms and Signs of Emphysema

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 2/11/2022

Doctor's Notes on Emphysema

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in which the alveoli (small sacs) in the lung that allow for oxygen exchange between the air and the bloodstream are destroyed. The most common cause of emphysema in the US and in many other countries is cigarette smoking. Exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, and toxic fumes or dust in the environment are also risk factors for developing emphysema. Less commonly, genetic conditions such as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency can cause the condition.

Destruction of lung tissue in emphysema leads to shortness of breath (dyspnea), which is the primary symptom of the condition. Shortness of breath may first arise with exercise or activity, but it gradually worsens over time. Wheezing is typically an associated symptom.

What Is the Treatment for Emphysema?

Treatment for emphysema involves both lifestyle and medical approaches. Treatments include:

  • Smoking cessation, which is an effective therapy and major goal for all people with emphysema who smoke
  • Inhaled bronchodilator medications to open airways
  • Corticosteroid medications to manage inflammation
  • Antibiotics to clear any infections
  • Oxygen or respiratory support as needed
  • Surgery, in some cases
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.