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A Guide to Understanding Emphysema - Symptoms, Causes, Types and Treatment

Home > Blogs > A Guide to Understanding Emphysema - Symptoms, Causes, Types and Treatment

A Guide to Understanding Emphysema - Symptoms, Causes, Types and Treatment

Pulmonology | by Dr. Raja Dhar | Published on 27/02/2024


Emphysema is one of the chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) that millions of people across the world suffer from. It is determined by the gradual worsening of lung tissue impairing breathing and lowering quality of life. If you suspect the symptoms of emphysema condition like shortness of breath or persistent cough, then book your appointment with BM Birla Heart Research Center in Kolkata. You will find highly skilled and experienced healthcare professionals ensuring proper diagnosis and the right treatment solutions. 

This comprehensive guide will assess the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and available treatments for emphysema. The write-up will also involve insights into coping mechanisms and lifestyle modifications to assist people with this long-term lung disease. Please understand that this blog is research-based information and we do not encourage overlooking the doctor’s consultation. 

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema majorly targets the small air sacs in the lungs called alveoli, which are in charge of gas exchange. Irritant exposure mainly from cigarette smoke harms the alveolar walls and leads to inflammation over time. The lungs tend to lose their structural integrity and elasticity because of this damage making it difficult for them to expel air when exhaling. Emphysema patients usually experience symptoms like exhaustion, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and persistent cough.

What are the types of Emphysema?

Several types of emphysema are identified depending on the location and severity of the lung damage as per healthcare experts. Here are these classified types:

  • Emphysema centriacinar: This type usually affects the acinus proximal or central portion, hugely sparing the distal airways.
  • Panacinar Emphysema: This type causes the complete acinus that is from the alveoli to the respiratory bronchiole to be consistently wrecked.
  • Distal acinus emphysema: This type targets the distal portion of the acinus that involves alveoli while preserving the proximal airways. 

What are Emphysema symptoms?

Emphysema symptoms might vary depending on the person to person. The symptoms of emphysema usually grow slowly and keep worsening over time. Here are these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath occurs mainly during physical exertion.
  • A consistent cough is usually followed by the formation of sputum. 
  • Wheezing or a whistling sound when breathing.
  • Chest tightness.
  • Chest discomfort.
  • Fatigue and decreased exercise tolerance.
  • Unintentional weight loss, mainly in the advanced stage.

What are the causes of Emphysema?

One of the main causes of emphysema is long-term exposure to irritants harming the lungs. The most substantial risk factor for emphysema involves cigarette smoking, increasing the number of emphysema cases. Other factors are also there contributing to the growth of emphysema which involves:

  • Environmental pollutants like air pollution, industrial chemicals, and dust.
  • Genetic predisposition specifically alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a rare genetic condition predisposing people to initial-onset emphysema, even in the absence of smoking.

How is Emphysema diagnosed?

The diagnosis of emphysema involves a blend of clinical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests. Here are some of the diagnostic steps involved in confirming emphysema:

  • Pulmonary Function Tests (PFTs): This test assist in assessing lung functions, including lung capacity, airflow, and gas exchange.
  • Chest X-ray or CT Scan: With this test, healthcare experts can generate comprehensive pictures of the lungs to identify anomalies like lung hyperinflation and bullae formation.
  • Arterial Blood Gas Analysis: This test helps evaluate the levels of blood oxygen and carbon dioxide that indicate the severity of respiratory impairment.
  • Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency Testing: It is suggested for patients with early-onset emphysema or a family history.

What are the options available for Emphysema treatment?

Emphysema management emphasizes relieving symptoms, slowing disease growth, and enhancing quality of life. Here are some of the options for Emphysema treatment:

  • Quit smoking: One of the most important medical interferences is to halt the growth of emphysema and minimize respiratory symptoms.
  • Medications: Bronchodilators like beta-agonists and anticholinergics assist in relaxing the airways and improving airflow. Inhaled corticosteroids also help in reducing inflammation.
  • Oxygen Therapy: This treatment option delivers supplemental oxygen to minimize hypoxemia and enhance exercise tolerance in patients with advanced emphysema.
  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation: A comprehensive program that contains exercise training, education, and psychosocial support to improve lung function and general well-being.
  • Surgical Options: In some of the rare cases, lung volume reduction surgery or lung transplantation is recommended to enhance lung function and quality of life.

Living with Emphysema

Coping with emphysema necessitates a multidisciplinary approach, containing medical management, lifestyle changes, and emotional support. Here are some tips for patients living with emphysema:

  • Adopting a healthy lifestyle: Involve a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying physically active within one's limits can help enhance general health and lung function.
  • Avoiding respiratory irritants: Reducing exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution, and other environmental pollutants assists in averting further lung damage and exacerbations.
  • Practicing breathing techniques: Learning techniques such as pursed-lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing can help improve lung function and alleviate breathlessness.
  • Seeking emotional support: Living with a serious lung condition can be difficult, both physically and emotionally. Hence, it is vital to seek support from family, friends, or support groups that can provide valuable encouragement and coping methods.


Emphysema is one of the chronic lung conditions substantially impacting the lives of affected individuals. By comprehending its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options, patients can take proactive steps to manage the condition effectively and improve their quality of life. With wide-ranging medical care, lifestyle changes, and support, people dealing with emphysema can still lead fulfilling lives despite the challenges posed by this serious respiratory illness. Lastly, if you are diagnosed with this condition, make sure to work with your healthcare provider as they can assist you better than anyone else. 

Faq -


How to check for emphysema?

The condition of emphysema is diagnosed by involving a lung test function known as a spirometer. Other tests are also there such as X-rays or breathing tests.

Is emphysema reversible?

Emphysema condition is not reversible but the symptoms can be managed and enhance quality of life through the options available for treatment.