Key points about emphysema

  • Emphysema is a lung condition that makes you short of breath and causes a persistent cough. It is usually caused by smoking.
  • Emphysema happens when the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs get damaged and are eventually destroyed. This makes it hard to absorb enough oxygen when you breathe.
  • The damage can’t be fixed, but there are treatments to improve your breathing and medicine to relieve your symptoms.
  • The main treatment is to quit smoking. 
  • Emphysema is one of the lung diseases grouped together as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
Harakeke flax plant by coastal beach in New Zealand

Smoking is the most common cause of emphysema. Cigarette smoking not only destroys lung tissue, it also irritates your airways. This causes inflammation and damage to the linings of the bronchial tubes. This results in swollen airways, mucus production and difficulty clearing the airways. All of these changes can lead to shortness of breath. 

Air pollutants in the home and workplace, genetic (inherited) factors (alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency), and respiratory infections can also play a role in causing emphysema.

Lungs illustration showing normal alveoli and those affected by emphysema
Image credit: Blausen Medical Communications, Inc.(external link) Wikimedia Commona

The main symptoms are:

  • being short of breath
  • having a smoker's cough
  • longer than usual out-breaths
  • rapid breathing
  • finding it hard to breathe even when sitting or lying down. 

The diagnosis of emphysema can't be made solely on symptoms. Several tests are used to make the diagnosis, such as:

  • blood tests
  • a chest x-ray
  • tests to see how well your lungs work.

Spirometry is the basic and most useful test. Usually, this requires a referral to a hospital clinic as most GPs don’t do this test. Some people go on to have more extensive full lung testing.

The number one treatment is to quit smoking (if you smoke). You may also be prescribed medicine to open your airways and prevent or treat infections. There are many different types of medicines used for COPD conditions such as emphysema. Read more about medicines for COPD.

Your doctor may also ask you to do special exercises to improve your breathing, such as pulmonary rehabilitation.

There are important things you can do to help you breathe more easily and lessen the chance of a flare-up or exacerbation (your symptoms suddenly getting worse):

  • quit smoking
  • have a COPD action plan
  • stay active
  • improve the way you breathe
  • attend pulmonary rehabilitation
  • get your vaccinations
  • correct use of medicines.

Read more about self-care measures.

It can be distressing and frustrating to have breathing difficulties. Get help or find support when things are tough. Ask your GP about local support groups for COPD in your area. For more support services, see support services for COPD.

Emphysema(external link)(external link) Health Direct, Australia
What is COPD?(external link)(external link)  Asthma & Respiratory Foundation, NZ
COPD and smoking(external link)(external link) Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, US
COPD – the essentials(external link)(external link) NHS Choices, UK
Emphysema(external link)(external link) Buteyko Breathing 

  1. Forey BA, Thornton, AJ, Lee, PN. Systematic review with meta-analysis of the epidemiological evidence relating smoking to COPD, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. BMC Pulmonary Medicine 2011, June 14;11(36). doi:10.1186/1471-2466-11-36
  2. COPD Programme: The prevalence of COPD in New Zealand(external link)(external link) Medical Research Institute of New Zealand

Need help now?

Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Dr Helen Kenealy, geriatrician and general physician, Counties Manukau DHB

Last reviewed:

Page last updated: