Doctor examining lung patient

The team at UM St. Joseph Medical Group – Pulmonary Care and Sleep Medicine has extensive experience diagnosing and treating emphysema.

A form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema develops over time. It occurs when the air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) are damaged. The condition makes it harder for your lungs to move oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of your body, thus making breathing increasingly difficult.

Emphysema Causes

Smoking is considered the main cause of emphysema. Other possible causes are:

  • Air pollution
  • Exposure to chemical fumes and dust
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (a genetic condition)

Risk Factors

  • Family history of COPD 
  • Exposure to pollutants at work
  • History of frequent childhood lung infections
  • Age (most people who develop emphysema are at least 40 when symptoms begin) 

Emphysema Symptoms

Early symptoms include: 

  • Coughing up clear sputum (mucus from deep in the lungs)
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath with activity

As the disease progresses, patients may experience:

  • Increased shortness of breath and rapid breathing
  • Choking sensation when lying flat (may need to prop up with pillows or sleep in a chair)
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Increase in chest size (barrel chest)
  • Increased risk of serious lung infections
  • Enlargement of the right chamber of the heart and possibly heart failure
  • Coughing up thick and/or bloody mucus
  • Leg swelling
  • Weight loss

Diagnosing Emphysema

We will ask about your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam.

Tests may include:

  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan    
  • Blood tests to measure the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood (arterial blood gas test) 
  • Lung function tests (spirometry)

Emphysema Treatment

Emphysema cannot be cured, but there are treatments that help manage condition. They include:

  • Bronchodilator medications that relax the muscles around your airways
  • Anti-inflammatory medications that reduce airway inflammation
  • Oxygen therapy 
Procedures such as lung volume reduction surgery, which can relieve pressure by removing a portion of diseased lung tissue, or a lung transplant may be considered as a last resort.

The team at UM St. Joseph Medical Group – Pulmonary Care and Sleep Medicine will help you decide which treatment is right for you.