What is emphysema?

In your lungs, you have many small air sacs called alveoli. When air comes into your lungs, the oxygen in the air is absorbed by the walls of the alveoli and taken into your blood. The oxygen in your blood helps keep cells all over your body healthy and working.

When you have emphysema, the walls of the alveoli become weak and can break. When walls break down, you have fewer places for air to be absorbed into your blood. This means your body receives less oxygen.

Weak alveoli also don't push air back out of the lungs when you exhale. Old air remains in your lungs, keeping fresh air from coming in and being absorbed.

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It's most often caused by cigarette smoke, though other types of smoking, air pollution or fumes may also cause emphysema.

Symptoms of emphysema

Unfortunately, once alveoli are damaged, the damage can't be undone. You may not notice symptoms of emphysema at first. However, symptoms often get worse over time. Symptoms include:

  • Trouble breathing after activities or even at rest
  • Cough that doesn't go away
  • Hard time concentrating
  • Blue fingernails or lips after exercise


While there's still no cure for emphysema at this time, your doctor can help you find treatments to live more comfortably with emphysema and keep the condition from getting worse.

Some medicines can help relieve shortness of breath by relaxing your airways. Special exercises called pulmonary rehabilitation can help you learn how to breathe easier and improve your ability to be active with emphysema.

If you are a smoker it is very important that you quit smoking. Smoking can make emphysema worse, making it difficult for you to breathe and enjoy your day.

As emphysema worsens, you may need extra oxygen. To get extra oxygen, you'll need to wear tubes in your nose that are connected to a tank of oxygen. You may only need oxygen for a few hours a day or you may need to have your oxygen with you at all times.

If you have severe emphysema, your doctor may suggest lung surgery to make it easier for you to breathe.

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