Lung Disease


What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is one of the major obstructive lung diseases under the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) umbrella.  This lung condition gradually destroys the air sacs in the lungs, making it progressively more difficult to breathe. The tiny cluster-like air sacs in the lungs are responsible for bringing oxygen to the bloodstream. As emphysema progresses, the inner walls of the air sacs form holes, weakening their internal structure. The disease deters oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. Emphysema also destroys the elasticity of the airways that lead to the air sacs. As a result, the air sacs collapse, trapping oxygen in the lungs. Sufferers of emphysema constantly struggle to breathe.

Cigarette Smoking

The number one cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking. The toxins in cigarette smoke destroy tissue and cause inflammation of the lungs. Imagine soaking a sponge in red paint, when you squeeze the sponge most of the red paint comes out. However, a residual paint  is left inside the sponge that may take several minutes of scrubbing to wash out. The toxins from cigarette smoke have the same effect on your lungs.

When you smoke a cigarette, the toxins are inhaled into the lungs soaking the passageways and air sacs. The structure and elasticity are destroyed. When you breathe out, only some of the toxins leave your body. In the case of the sponge, you can eventually wash the paint out. Unfortunately, you can never fix the damage that is done to your lungs.

When cigarette smoke is repeatedly inhaled, the cilia or hair-like structures responsible for clearing mucus and other secretions, disappear. As a result, mucus is unable to clear from the lower respiratory tract causing “smokers cough.” Mucus build-up provides an advantageous environment for bacteria to grow and spread, which can lead to infection. The lungs are unable to fight off this infection because the toxins in cigarette smoke have destroyed the immune cells responsible for fighting bacteria. As a result, sufferers of emphysema are prone to chronic illness.

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 an enzyme released by immune cells in both the digestive tract and in the lungs, which fights bacteria or digests food. In people who are alpha-1-antitrypsin deficient, the lungs cannot fight the destructive nature of the trypsin. Therefore, the lung tissue is progressively weakened and destroyed, similar to what is found in a person who has smoked cigarettes.

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 is in dense urban environments and near industrial complexes that use harsh chemicals or burn fossil fuels for energy.


If a relative has emphysema, you may be more likely to develop the disease. The similarities in genetic make-up are responsible for making you more susceptible to the disease.

Persistent Cough

Sufferers of emphysema typically exhibit a persistent cough or “smokers cough.” The cough reflex is an important defense mechanism expelling harmful substances from the body. The damage done to the lungs from the causes of emphysema can irritate the lungs leading to a persistent cough.


Emphysema may cause an individual to wheeze, or exhibit an abnormal whistling noise while breathing. Wheezing is a result of air passing through the bronchioles or tree like structures of the lung. 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 sufferers. Chest tightness is often exacerbated by anxiety and in severe cases can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Shortness of Breath

Labored breathing or shortness of breath is the feeling that breathing requires far more effort than what is typically necessary. In emphysema  sufferers, shortness of breath can occur while exerting oneself, sitting or lying flat.

Both Men and Women

Historically, men had developed emphysema more often than females. Starting in 2011, women have reported a higher rate of emphysema diagnosis than men.


Older people are at a higher risk for developing emphysema. Emphysema is a progressive disease, which worsens over time and as you age, your physical health begins to decline. As a result of these two factors, older individuals are more likely to develop the disease.

If you would like to find out more about our available treatment options, please contact one of our patient care coordinators today at (800) 729-3065 to schedule a free consultation.

Related Posts

  • Emphysema Symptoms: What They Are and How to Manage ThemThere is a common set of symptoms to be expected when dealing with emphysema. Learn more about each symptom and how to manage them here. Read more
  • Emphysema and COPD: 5 Helpful Tips for Breathing BetterEmphysema and COPD disease symptoms can present a sizeable challenge to those who live with them. With your health in mind, the Lung Institute is here to give you a ... Read more

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