Emphysema: Symptoms and Causes | Tampa General Hospital


Emphysema is a lung condition that affects the alveoli (air sacs) and causes breathing problems. Emphysema is a progressive and non-reversible lung condition that causes damage to the walls of the alveoli (air sacs) and tissue of the lungs. As the inner walls of the sacs deteriorate, the surface area of the lungs is reduced and the amount of oxygen that reaches the blood stream decreases.

Along with chronic bronchitis, emphysema is often grouped with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and leads to difficulties with breathing. Emphysema affects over 3 million Americans, with the condition being most prevalent among men between the ages of 50 and 70.

What Are the Causes of Emphysema?

While smoking is the number one factor that can lead to the development of emphysema, there are a few additional causes. These may include:

  • Air pollution in the home or workplace
  • Genetic factors such as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
  • Respiratory infections

Recognizing the Signs of Emphysema

The symptoms of emphysema will often not arise until the majority of the lung tissue has been affected. There are several signs of emphysema to look out for, such as:

  • Chronic coughing, sometimes referred to as a “smoker’s cough”
  • Long-term mucus production
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath, especially when it gradually develops over time and during regular activities
  • Chest tightness
  • Ongoing fatigue

How Is Emphysema Diagnosed?

To diagnose emphysema, a doctor will need to perform tests in addition to inquiring about a patient’s symptoms. These tests may include:

  • Listening with a stethoscope while tapping the chest
  • Imaging scans, including X-rays and CAT scans
  • Pulse oximetry or oxygen saturation test
  • Arterial blood gas to test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels
  • Spirometry and pulmonary function tests (PFT)
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to rule out heart disease as a cause of symptoms

Treating Emphysema

There is no known cure for emphysema, but effective treatment can be applied to slow the disease’s progression and reduce its severity. Your doctor may recommend:

  • Lifestyle changes, including quitting smoking
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Bronchodilator medications to relax the airway muscles
  • Possible surgery in severe cases

If you notice signs of emphysema, it is best to see your medical provider as soon as possible to prevent the steep progression of this disease. The lung and pulmonary specialists at Tampa General Hospital have the skills, tools and expertise to diagnose and treat emphysema on a personalized, case-by-case basis.