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What is Emphysema?

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

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 888-745-6697 to schedule a free consultation.

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