Emphysema is a chronic lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe properly. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two conditions that are considered COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Emphysema impacts the body’s oxygen supply. It damages the air sacs in the lungs, causing a persistent cough and difficulty breathing. The condition is almost always caused by smoking. In fact, approximately 90 percent of people with COPD are either current or former smokers. According to the American Lung Association, COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Roughly three million people in the United States have emphysema. A small percentage of people are born with a genetic form of the disease called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency emphysema. Regardless of the cause, emphysema is associated with specific symptoms that typically progress slowly over time.  

Symptoms for Emphysema

The most common symptoms include difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and tightness in the chest. According to the National Emphysema Foundation, COPD may increase the risk of mild cognitive impairment. Depression has also been found to worsen symptoms. Emphysema currently has no cure.  


Treatment options aim to improve symptoms. Smokers with the disease are advised to quit immediately, as smoking only accelerates lung damage. Steroids and bronchodilators are also used to help improve breathing quality. In the most severe cases, oxygen tanks can be implemented. Undergoing lung volume reduction surgery or a lung transplant represent last resorts. Antibiotics are also used to treat COPD-related infections, like pneumonia. Despite popular belief, new research has found that physical exercise is actually good for COPD. Staying active may help manage the symptoms, according to researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation. Pulmonary rehabilitation can also help. This is an education approach that teaches patients about new breathing techniques, nutrition counseling and more.

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