Emphysema, Explained in 90 Seconds

It’s most commonly caused by cigarette smoking.

Loading the player...

It’s easy to take your lungs for granted. Without even thinking about, you breathe all day long, silently taking in oxygen and pushing out carbon dioxide. However, when something goes wrong with the lungs, it’s much easier to realize how important these organs are for your health and quality of life.

One of the diseases that can affect your lung health is emphysema. Along with chronic bronchitis, it falls under the umbrella of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. These days, doctors are more likely to use the diagnosis of COPD because emphysema and chronic bronchitis so often occur together.

How Healthy Lungs Function

Inside your lungs, there are “branches” of airways called bronchioles. At the end of each bronchiole, you’ll find clusters of tiny air sacs called alveoli. Your lungs have millions—millions!—of these tiny alveoli.

Your alveoli are crucial to your respiratory health: They’re where your lungs swap oxygen and carbon dioxide. This helps keep your blood oxygenated, so the tissues all around your body get the oxygen they need to function well.

How Emphysema Affects the Lungs

When someone is developing emphysema, toxins (such as from cigarette smoking) gradually damage the alveoli and other lung tissue. Eventually, the damaged air sacs rupture, so instead of being a cluster of alveoli, it becomes one large air sac.

This ruptured air sac has less surface area to swap oxygen and carbon dioxide (compared to a cluster of tiny air sacs), so it becomes less effective. Oxygen becomes trapped inside, and the lungs start to overfill with oxygen. As a result, oxygen levels start to drop in the bloodstream, and the tissues don’t get the oxygen they need.

Symptoms of emphysema include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing with mucus
  • And wheezing.

Treatment of Emphysema

Once emphysema develops, it can’t be cured. However, starting treatment early can slow the progression of emphysema and improve quality of life. Treatment may include bronchodilators (inhalers that help relax the muscles) or corticosteroids to reduce inflammation in the airways.

Noticing shortness of breath or other symptoms of emphysema? Talk to your doctor if symptoms arise—or to get help quitting smoking for good.