Have you ever smoked? Have you breathed poor quality air? You could be at risk for developing a dangerous lung disease: emphysema. Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, that according to COPD.net¹ affects around five million U.S. adults.

While smoking is the leading cause of emphysema, anyone can develop this deadly disease. That’s why it’s so important to know the early warning signs and most effective treatments. If caught early, emphysema patients won’t have to face a grim future.

Early Warning Signs of Emphysema

Emphysema is a long-term progressive disease, which means it gets progressively worse if left untreated. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the symptoms of emphysema and see a doctor right away.

Normally, lung tissue facilitates the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, or the gases involved in breathing. In damaged or destroyed lung tissue, the tissue’s small airways have collapsed. This means airflow is slowed or obstructed, gases are trapped in the lungs, and breathing becomes difficult.

Healthy lungs resemble brand-new sponges. Lungs with emphysema look like worn, brittle sponges filled with holes. Small blood vessels suffer damage, so blood flow is affected along with airflow. As a result, the lungs are deprived of oxygen.

If you’re beginning to suffer this kind of damage in your lungs, the following are early signs and symptoms of emphysema:

  • Gradually worsening shortness of breath
  • Chronic cough
  • Decreased tolerance for exercise or other physical activities

In later stages, you might experience some of these symptoms:

  • Frequent lung infections
  • Heavy mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Blue-tinged lips or fingernail beds
  • Sleep disorders
  • Morning headaches indicating a lack of oxygen through the night

Another symptom of advancing emphysema is developing a barrel chest. Normally, the measure of your chest from side to side is significantly greater than from front to back. A noticeable protrusion in the front of the chest could be an indication of overinflated lungs.

Emphysema and other serious conditions, such as heart disease, share many of the same symptoms. The importance of seeing a doctor to pinpoint the problem can’t be overstated.

Treatment Options

Once you see a doctor and get a diagnosis, you’ll be able to assess the different treatment options available to you. Each stage of emphysema responds differently to various treatments, so it’s crucial that you’re aware which stage you’re in. Though emphysema is a serious disease, there are several ways to stop its progression and alleviate symptoms.

The following are a few treatment options:

Drug Therapy

The most common drugs for emphysema and other COPDs are called bronchodilators. When you inhale them, they relax and open the air passages in your lungs.

These medications clear mucus, relax bronchial muscles, and improve lung function and capacity. They are available in short- or long-acting forms, and they’re sometimes combined. While prescription drugs can’t reverse the damage of emphysema, they keep patients comfortable and improve lung function going forward. However, there are possible side effects, such as cataract formation and osteoporosis, with long-term use.

Oxygen Therapy

Breathing becomes more difficult as emphysema progresses, but oxygen therapy can significantly improve quality of life. Patients receiving higher concentrations of oxygen don’t have to work so hard to breathe. Oxygen therapy is typically used in conjunction with drug therapies.

There are a number of devices to boost oxygen delivery, and many of them are small, portable units that can be used anywhere. Options include electrically powered concentrators, liquid oxygen systems, and cylinders of compressed gas.

Depending on a patient’s lifestyle and symptoms, a pulmonologist might recommend treatment during sleep, during activity, or all the time. Oxygen levels must be carefully monitored to prevent saturation and possible toxicity.


Surgery may be recommended for severe cases of emphysema.

In lung volume reduction surgery, small segments of damaged tissue are removed. The remaining tissue then has more room to expand and function. Lung transplantation is a last resort for improving quality of life, but it doesn’t increase life expectancy.

Patients must undergo lifelong drug therapy to prevent their immune systems from rejecting the transplanted tissue.

How to Get the Most Out of Emphysema Treatments

Although emphysema is a progressive disease, you can extend your prognosis and improve your quality of life with the right treatment, or combination of treatments, for years to come. When you and your doctor find a treatment option that works for you, you’ll begin working to improve your lungs’ function.

However, once you’ve begun treatment for emphysema, it’s crucial that you avoid and prevent further complications with the disease. Living a healthier lifestyle all around – opting for a healthier diet, increasing your exercise frequency, avoiding smoking, and making health conscious choices – will prevent other complications from developing.

Treatment is just half the battle. To hold emphysema at bay, you must also make healthy lifestyle changes. Your body and mind will benefit, you’ll be in better spirits, and you’ll prevent other complications.

Like anything, it’s always a good idea to be aware of the latest research. We recommend comparing at least 3 or 4 options before making a final decision. Doing a search online is typically the quickest, most thorough way to discover all the pros and cons you need to keep in mind.