Navigating Emphysema: Causes, Symptoms, and Management Strategies

Navigating Emphysema: Causes, Symptoms, and Management Strategies

Emphysema is a lung condition causing shortness of breath as a result of damaged air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli. The inner walls of the alveoli weaken and rupture over time, thus creating larger air spaces and reducing the surface area of the lungs. As a result, the amount of oxygen reaching the bloodstream is reduced as well and when exhaling old air gets trapped, leaving no room for oxygen-rich air to enter.

Now, if you want to learn more about emphysema, continue reading below!

Emphysema Symptoms

The main emphysema symptom is shortness of breath. However, it typically begins gradually and you could also have the condition for many years without even experiencing or noticing any signs or symptoms.

For example, you can start experiencing shortness of breath when doing physical activities or exercises. Hence, you may avoid such activities which may seem like the symptom has gone away. But, over time, the symptoms will start interfering with simple daily tasks and eventually, you will experience shortness of breath even at rest.

Emphysema Causes

Long-term exposure to airborne irritants is the major emphysema cause. Such irritants include tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke, chemical fumes and dust, and air pollution. In rare cases, it can also be caused by an inherited protein deficiency. This protein is called alpha-1-antitrypsin and is responsible for protecting the elastic structures in the lungs.

Emphysema Diagnosis

To be diagnosed with emphysema, your healthcare provider will ask you about your medical history and perform a physical exam. A variety of tests can help in the diagnosis process including:

Imaging tests

  • Chest X-ray – to support a diagnosis of advanced emphysema or eliminate other conditions causing shortness of breath.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scans – to detect and diagnose emphysema or determine whether you are a candidate for lung surgery.

Lab tests

A simple blood test from an artery in the wrist can show your doctor how well your lungs transfer oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from your bloodstream.

Lung function tests

Finally, your doctor may recommend some noninvasive tests, such as spirometry, that measure the amount of air your lungs can hold and show how well the air flows in and out of your lungs. These can also determine whether your lungs deliver oxygen to your bloodstream properly.

Emphysema Management

Unfortunately, emphysema cannot be cured. However, there are management strategies and treatment options that can help you relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the condition. Here are some common management strategies doctors recommend for treating emphysema:

Lifestyle changes

If you suffer from emphysema, there are several steps to take to slow its progression and protect from complications, including:

  • Stop smoking
  • Avoid other respiratory irritants
  • Practice regular exercise
  • Protect from cold air
  • Get recommended vaccinations
  • Prevent respiratory infections


Furthermore, your doctor might suggest taking medications, which depending on the severity of the condition might include:

  • Bronchodilators
  • Inhaled steroids
  • Antibiotics


Although it may sound surprising, several types of therapy can help you relieve and slow down the progression of emphysema symptoms. These therapies might include:

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Nutrition therapy
  • Supplemental oxygen


Last but not least, in severe cases, your doctor might suggest one or more different types of surgery. These surgeries might include:

  • Lung volume reduction surgery
  • Lung transplant

The Bottom Line

Emphysema is a serious lung condition, especially if left untreated. Therefore, ensure you consult your doctor as soon as you first experience unexplained shortness of breath that lasts for weeks or months. Getting the right treatment option on time is essential if you want to slow the progression of emphysema.