What Is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that occurs when the alveoli (air sacs) in your lungs are gradually destroyed. This progressive lung disease makes you increasingly short of breath.

The irreversible damage emphysema causes to the air sacs reduces the surface area of the lungs and, therefore, the amount of oxygen that is able to reach your bloodstream. This disease also destroys the elastic fibers in your lungs that hold open the small airways that lead to the air sacs. This causes the airways to collapse as you exhale, preventing the air in your lungs from escaping.

More than 4.7 million people in the United States have emphysema, with more than 90 percent over the age of 45. Today, more women have emphysema than men, likely because of the increase in smoking among women in previous decades. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Complications of emphysema

If you have emphysema, you are also more likely to develop:

  • Pneumothorax: In patients with severe emphysema, the compromise of their lungs can lead to collapse, which can be life-threatening.
  • Giant bullae: Some patients with emphysema develop empty spaces in their lungs, known as bullae, with giant bullae being holes in the lungs as large as half the lung. Bullae reduce the amount of available space for the lung to expand, and can also become infected and increase the risk of pneumothorax.
  • Heart problems: Emphysema can increase the pressure on arteries that connect the heart and lungs, causing cor pulmonale, a condition where the right-hand section of the heart expands and weakens from high blood pressure.