The Effects of Smoking: Emphysema

Emphysema mostly affects regular users of tobacco products. In severe cases, patients are treated with the regular use of oxygen tanks or surgery.


Emphysema is an illness which is included in the broader diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. It progressively destroys the tissue of the alveoli or small air sacs found in the lungs that hold air. As the illness progresses, these small air sacs converge into one larger sac. This decreases the overall surface area of the lungs, and prevents them from absorbing oxygen rich air to be distributed by the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Who Gets Emphysema?

Emphysema primarily affects users of tobacco products like cigarettes and cigars. Secondhand smoke may also be a cause. Rarely, other environmental contaminants may damage the lungs severely enough to cause emphysema, even in non-smokers. It is estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of all emphysema and COPD cases are directly related to smoking, according to The American Lung Association.

A genetic form of emphysema, alpha-1 deficiency, is a very rare occurrence in which a person is born without a protective protein normally found in the blood.

It is estimated that up to 24 million people may be living with emphysema or COPD, but only 11 million of them have been diagnosed. One cause of this discrepancy is due to delays in diagnosis. Because emphysema has symptoms in common with less severe illnesses, such as influenza or the common cold, sufferers may not immediately seek medical care.

Most individuals with emphysema are over the age of 35, with people 50 and older being the most commonly diagnosed.

What are the Symptoms of Emphysema?

Early symptoms of emphysema may include a lingering cough or shortness of breath during physical activity. As the illness progresses, sufferers may also experience fatigue, excessive phlegm, blue nail beds and lips, severe cough, and trouble breathing.

Unfortunately, many patients do not experience symptoms until the condition is in its later stages. Some patients also assume the symptoms are due to less severe health issues and delay seeking medical advice. Those who are at risk for emphysema should see a health care professional immediately if these symptoms occur to ensure earlier diagnosis. Smokers over the age of 35 are most at risk.

How is Emphysema Diagnosed?

If emphysema is suspected, doctors will generally have patients perform one or several pulmonary function tests, or PFTs. This helps determine how much airflow a patient can emit from their lungs, and it is performed by blowing into a meter. Lowered lung function indicates airway obstruction.

Chest X-rays may also be performed to view the lungs directly.

How is Emphysema Treated?

Most cases of emphysema are treated with inhaler medications and nebulizers. These medications are breathed directly into the lungs to open airways and prevent obstruction. Those with more severe illnesses may also require oxygen to help them breathe easier. Oxygen may be delivered continuously, or as needed. In some very severe cases, patients may require surgery.

How Serious is Emphysema?

There is no cure for emphysema. Those who catch the illness early may live many years, while those with more advanced stages will typically have a much shorter life expectancy. According to WebMD, no widespread studies have been done to determine expected lifespans of those with emphysema, so predicting how the disease will progress in any given patient is impossible to do. Life expectancy will depend, in part, on overall health, age, whether the person has access to medical care, and whether the person is a smoker.

Despite treatment options, COPD-related illnesses are the fourth leading cause of death in the US.

How can Emphysema be Prevented?

Since most cases of emphysema and other COPD-related diseases are caused by smoking, the best means of prevention is to avoid smoking. This includes all tobacco related products. Those who do smoke should quit immediately. Quitting could prevent the occurrence of tobacco-related diseases, or slow down progression in those who are already sufferers.