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What Is Emphysema?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 - 12:29
Contributors to this article: 

Archie Wilson MD
Guy Slowik FRCS

Emphysema is a lung disease that reduces the ability of the lungs to expel air, a process which depends upon the natural rubber-band-like quality or elastic properties of the lungs. Damage occurs to the tiny airways in the lungs called bronchioles. Bronchioles are joined to alveoli, tiny grape-like clusters of sacs in the lungs where oxygen from the air is exchanged for carbon dioxide from the body. The elastic properties of the lung reside in the tissue around the alveoli.

In emphysema:

  • Because the lungs lose elasticity they become less able to contract.
  • This prevents the alveoli from deflating completely, and the person has difficulty exhaling.
  • Hence, the next breath is started with more air in the lungs.
  • The trapped "old" air takes up space, so the alveoli are unable to fill with enough fresh air to supply the body with needed oxygen.

A person with emphysema may feel short of breath during exertion and, as the disease progresses, even while at rest.

Emphysema is one of several irreversible lung diseases that diminish the ability to exhale. This group of diseases is called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The two major diseases in this category are emphysema and chronic bronchitis, which often develop together.

For more information about bronchitis, go to Bronchitis.

Facts About Emphysema

  • Nearly two million Americans have emphysema.
  • Emphysema ranks 15th among chronic conditions that force people to limit their activities.
  • Cigarette smoking is the primary cause of emphysema.
  • Most people with emphysema are older men. As with lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases, however, the incidence of emphysema is increasing among women.
  • Emphysema doesn't develop suddenly. Instead, it comes on gradually, usually after years of exposure to cigarette smoke or some other inhaled irritant.
  • Typically, symptoms of emphysema appear only after 30 to 50 percent of lung tissue is lost.
  • Emphysema rates are highest for men age 65 and older.
  • More people in the Midwest have emphysema than in any other region in the country.
  • Emphysema is an irreversible disease that can be slowed but not reversed or stopped.


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