Emphysema is a form of long term lung disease. It damages the small airways (alveoli) in the lungs and breaks down the lung tissue, making it difficult to breath. There are multiple causes for emphysema, but smoking is by far the most common. In emphysema, the inner walls of the airways weaken and rupture, creating one large air space. In turn, this reduces the surface area of the lungs and the amount of oxygen that is able to reach the bloodstream. The damaged alveoli don’t work properly and the old air becomes trapped, leaving no room for fresh oxygen-rich air to enter. Treatment options for emphysema can help slow progression; however, this is no cure to reverse the damage to the lungs.



The main symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath, which usually begins gradually. It can begin to interfere with an individual’s daily activities and even occur while at rest. Other symptoms may include wheezing, tiredness and a chronic cough.



After frequent exposure to air toxics such as cigarette smoke, the air sacs of the lungs become inflamed and damaged. The airways of healthy lungs have elastic properties; however, with continuing irritant exposure, they can lose their elasticity and become more prone to inflammation and narrowing of the lumen.

The main cause of emphysema is long-term exposure to air toxics including:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Marijuana smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Toxic fumes


Risk factors

Factors that are associated with the increased risk of developing emphysema include:

  • Age (common between the ages of 40 and 60)
  • Being a smoker
  • Exposure to secondhand smoking
  • Exposure to toxic fumes (chemicals or dust from factory or mining sites)
  • Exposure to air pollution (fumes from heating fuel, car exhaust)



Individuals with emphysema are also more likely to develop the following:

  • A collapsed lung (pneumothorax) due to the damage to the lungs function
  • Heart conditions (corpulmonale) due to the increased pressure in the arteries that connect the heart and lungs
  • Large holes in the lungs (giant bullae)




A few recommendations for preventing emphysema include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Avoiding breathing secondhand smoke
  • Wearing a protective mask around chemical fumes or dust grains