When you breathe, air travels to your lungs through airways called bronchi. The bronchi divide into smaller airways, called bronchioles, which end in clusters of tiny air sacs, called alveoli. Emphysema, the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, affects the walls of the millions of tiny air sacs in the lungs, which become inflamed and loose elasticity, causing the bronchioles to collapse. As a result, air becomes trapped in the air sacks, which become overstretched and may rupture, greatly affecting a person's ability to breathe normally.
The leading cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking. Other risks factors include air pollution, occupational exposure to dust and chemicals, frequent lower respiratory infections and second hand smoke. In rare cases, the genetic disorder alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency causes emphysema.
A person with emphysema will have shortness of breath — during physical activity and, when the condition is more advanced, also during rest. Patients may eventually need supplemental oxygen and may have to rely on mechanical respiratory devices.
Other symptoms of emphysema include:
In making a diagnosis of emphysema, your doctor will start by conducting a thorough medical examination, recording your medical history and asking about any symptoms you are experiencing.
The following tests may then be conducted to make a definite diagnosis:
The goal of therapy for emphysema is to provide relief of symptoms, prevent complications and slow the progression of the disease. Quitting smoking is also essential for patients with emphysema, since continuing to use tobacco will only further damage the lungs. Our Tobacco Education Center offers classes as well as individual consultations with doctors trained in treating tobacco addiction. We help smokers maximize the likelihood of success in their efforts to quit.
Inhaled as aerosol sprays or taken orally, bronchodilator medications may help to relieve symptoms of emphysema by relaxing and opening the air passages in the lungs.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.