The official blog of the Lung Institute.

What is Emphysema?

24 Feb 2017
| Under Emphysema, Lung Disease | Posted by | 8 Comments

Emphysema is one of the major obstructive lung diseases classified as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Emphysema is a chronic lung disease that gradually destroys alveoli, the tiny air sacs that enable our lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. The destruction of alveoli makes breathing progressively more difficult. Alveoli are responsible for bringing oxygen to the bloodstream. As emphysema progresses, the inner walls of alveoli develop holes, weakening their internal structure. Thus, emphysema prevents enough oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. Emphysema also destroys the elasticity of the airways that lead to the alveoli. Consequently, the alveoli collapse, trapping air in the lungs. People who suffer from emphysema must constantly struggle to breathe. We’re here to break down the question, “what is emphysema” for you.

Cigarette Smoking and What is Emphysema

The principal cause of emphysema is smoking tobacco—specifically cigarettes. The toxins in cigarette smoke destroy tissue and cause pulmonary inflammation. Imagine soaking a sponge in paint, when you squeeze the sponge most of the paint comes out. However, some remains inside the sponge, reducing the absorbency of the sponge in the future. Toxins from cigarette smoke have the same effect on the lungs.

The toxins in cigarette smoke saturate airways and alveoli, destroying their structure and elasticity. Upon exhalation, only some of the residual toxins leave the body. A paint-laden sponge can be washed out, with a bit of effort. Unfortunately, there is no way to repair lung damage once it is done. This is why it is imperative for smokers to quit immediately. As the old saying goes, when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

When cigarette smoke is habitually inhaled, the hair-like structures known as cilia, responsible for clearing mucus and other secretions, disappear. As a result, the lungs lose their ability to clear the lower respiratory tract of contaminants, causing a “smoker’s cough.” Mucus build-up provides a perfect environment for bacteria to thrive in the lungs, which can lead to serious infection, sometimes in the form of pneumonia. The lungs are unable to fight off such infections because the toxins in cigarette smoke have also destroyed the immune cells responsible for fighting bacteria. As a result, people with emphysema, in addition to having difficulty breathing, are prone to chronic infection.

Alpha-1-antitrypsin (or alpha-1 antiprotease)

Alpha-1-antitrypsin is a rare genetic disorder that decreases the production of a specific protein. An alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency may cause emphysema to develop in people who have never smoked cigarettes. Alpha-1-antitrypsin is a substance in the lungs that fights the enzyme trypsin (or protease). Trypsin is released by immune cells in the digestive tract and in the lungs, and both fight bacteria and digest food. In people who are alpha-1-antitrypsin deficient, the lungs have lost their ability to resist the destructive nature of trypsin. Therefore, lung tissue is progressively weakened and destroyed, with similar results to those found in people who have smoked cigarettes for years.


Air Pollutants

A consistent inhalation of air pollutants can cause inflammation in the lungs, leading to lung damage and emphysema. The most common places people consume such pollutants are dense urban environments and industrial areas that use harsh chemicals or burn fossil fuels for energy.


People with relatives suffering from emphysema may be more likely to develop the disease. Genetic similarities are responsible for higher vulnerability to emphysema.

What is Emphysema and Persistent Cough

People with emphysema typically exhibit a persistent “smoker’s cough.” The cough reflex is an important defense mechanism for expelling harmful substances from the body. Damage done to the lungs can lead to this persistent cough, a symptom not to be ignored. Sadly, many people with emphysema or other forms of COPD remain undiagnosed and untreated.


Emphysema may cause wheezing, an abnormal whistling noise while breathing. Wheezing is a result of air passing through the bronchioles or tree like structures of the lungs. When the bronchiole airways become narrowed or damaged, air travels abnormally and causes a whistling noise.

Chest Tightness

Emphysema may cause chest tightness or the sensation of not being able to breathe. Chest tightness is one of the scariest symptoms for people. Chest tightness is often exacerbated by anxiety, and in severe cases, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke.


Shortness of Breath

In people who suffer from emphysema, shortness of breath can occur while exerting oneself, or in severe cases, while simply sitting or reclining.

Men and Women

Historically, men have developed emphysema more often than women. However, since 2011, women have reported a higher rate of emphysema diagnosis than men.


In fact, older people are at a higher risk for developing emphysema. Emphysema is a progressive disease, meaning it worsens over time. The older a person with emphysema is, the worse the symptoms of his or her disease will likely be.

We hope this information about what is emphysema is helpful to you. If you would like to find out more about emphysema treatment options, contact one of our patient care coordinators today at (800) 729-3065 to schedule a free consultation.


  1. Matt

    1 year ago

    Hello Frances,
    Thank you for your question. To find out if you are a candidate for cell therapy, please give one of our staff members a call at (855) 313-1149. That way they can get more familiar with your medical situation and give you the best advice possible. Thanks again and have a great day.


    1 year ago


  3. Matt

    1 year ago

    Hello Erman, Thank you for your post.
    Since opening our doors more than three years ago, the Lung Institute has treated more than 3,500 lung disease patients with cell therapy. In our most recent patient outcomes survey, 84.5 percent of COPD patients saw an improvement in quality of life. Click here to review the outcome survey. If you have any other questions, please give us a call at (855) 313-1149 and one of our staff members will go over everything with you. Thanks again and have a great day.

  4. Erman

    1 year ago

    My Dr told me that cell doesnt work on COPD?
    This is a military Dr
    I am 90 yrs old and aside from peripheral artery diseaSe and COPD i am healthyand take no meds

  5. Matt

    1 year ago

    Thank you for your post. We would be happy to discuss your questions regarding cell therapy. Please give us a call at (855) 313-1149 and one of our patient coordinators will gladly answer any questions you may have. Thanks again and have a great day.

  6. Matt

    1 year ago

    Hello Mary Ann,
    Thank you for your question, unfortunately we are unable to treat patients with mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) pulmonary disease. If you have any questions, please give us a call at (855) 313-1149. Thanks again and have a great day.

  7. Sharon Weaver

    1 year ago

    I would like to know what you think of this new cell program that is on the internet. Of course insurance doesn’t cover it. The reviews are kind of mixed, and it’s very expensive, not a cure but supposed to give you more time and a better quality of life.

  8. Mary Ann mewcomer

    1 year ago

    Will stemcell work for some one with emphysema and Mac.with Copd?

* Every patient is given a Patient Satisfaction Survey shortly after treatment. Responses to the 11-question survey are aggregated to determine patient satisfaction with the delivery of treatment.

^ Quality of Life Survey data measured the patient’s self-assessed quality of life and measurable quality of improvement at three months.

All claims made regarding the efficacy of Lung Institute's treatments as they pertain to pulmonary conditions are based solely on anecdotal support collected by Lung Institute. Individual conditions, treatment and outcomes may vary and are not necessarily indicative of future results. Testimonial participation is voluntary. Lung Institute does not pay for or script patient testimonials.

As required by Texas state law, the Lung Institute Dallas Clinic has received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval from MaGil IRB, now Chesapeake IRB, which is fully accredited by the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Program (AAHRPP), for research protocols and procedures. The Lung Institute has implemented these IRB approved standards at all of its clinics nationwide. Approval indicates that we follow rigorous standards for ethics, quality, and protections for human research.

Each patient is different. Results may vary.