Emphysema is one of a group of disorders in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This progressive condition destroys the alveoli – the little air sacs – in the lungs. This reduces airflow, making breathing difficult and limiting the amount of oxygen in the blood stream. Though the condition cannot be cured, treatment can slow its progression.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

In its early stages, emphysema may produce no noticeable symptoms. In fact, patients may live with the disease for several years before detecting common symptoms such as shortness of breath or coughing frequently are severe enough for concern. In the beginning stages, patients often associate tightness in the chest and shortness of breath with advancing age or poor physical fitness. A patient should seek medical attention if shortness of breath interferes with everyday activities or persists for long periods.

In order to diagnose emphysema, a physician may conduct several tests. Imaging tests such as x-rays and computerized tomography scans display internal views of the lungs. These tests alone are not enough to confirm the presence of emphysema. However, combining the results of imaging tests with those of lab and lung function tests give doctors an overall view of lung health. Lab testing requires a blood sample, which doctors use to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood stream. A spirometer is a tool that helps doctors determine lung function. It works by measuring the volume of air able to be held in the lungs and how that air is delivered into the blood stream. Together, these tests enable the diagnosis of emphysema.


Cigarette smoking is the main cause of emphysema. Other causes include exposure to air pollution, coal dust and industrial fumes. In very rare cases an inherited protein deficiency is to blame.


In all but inherited cases, steps can be taken to prevent emphysema from developing. It is important to avoid tobacco and marijuana smoke. Patients who do smoke may improve health by quitting. Air pollution and respiratory irritants should be avoided, or a mask worn, when contact cannot be avoided. Continue reading for Treatment information . . .

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