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Emphysema is a chronic obstructive disease of the lungs. The lungs contain millions of tiny air sacs called alveoli. In emphysema, the sacs lose their elasticity and air becomes trapped in the sacs. It becomes difficult to expel oxygen-depleted air from the lungs. So the normal exchange of new and used air is diminished. Emphysema is classified as a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Causes of Emphysema

Emphysema develops due to smoking cigarettes, inhaling toxins or irritants, or from Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD), a genetic defect which can cause emphysema at an early age in non-smokers

Risk Factors for Emphysema

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Long-term second-hand or passive smoke exposure
  • Family members with emphysema
  • Exposure to pollutants at work
  • History of frequent childhood lung infections
  • Age: 50 or older

Symptoms of Emphysema

Early symptoms include:

  • Coughing in the morning
  • 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
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Weight loss

Diagnosing Emphysema

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.

Tests may include:

  • Chest X-Ray
  • CT Scan - a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the chest
  • Blood tests assessing the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood (arterial blood gas test)
  • Lung Function Tests (Spirometry)