Emphysema is a progressive, long-term lung disease that occurs when lung tissue is damaged or destroyed by smoking, air pollution, airway reactivity, alpha-1 antitrypsin enzyme deficiency, heredity, or other underlying causes.
People with emphysema have shortness of breath due to extreme inflation of the lung’s air sacs, or alveoli. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are known as Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease, or COPD, because the airflow is literally obstructed – delayed or stopped – when oxygen and carbon dioxide cannot move freely in and out of the damaged lungs. Air gets trapped in the lungs when patients inhale, making it difficult to breathe and also preventing normal blood flow and oxygen transport through the lungs.
Chest x-rays, lung function tests, blood tests, and genetic testing (in cases of suspected enzyme deficiency) help confirm a diagnosis of emphysema. Patients may be treated with bronchodilators (medicines that allow the air passages to open more fully), steroids that reduce inflammation, antibiotics to treat pneumonia or other infections, and oxygen. Pulmonary rehabilitation may improve quality of life and make breathing and exercise more comfortable. Some patients may benefit from surgical intervention.
According to the American Lung Association, more than 3 million Americans have been diagnosed with emphysema.
Read more about emphysema and COPD from the American Lung Association.