Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Emphysema

6-minute read

If you or someone else are having severe trouble breathing call triple zero (000) immediately or go to your nearest emergency department

What is emphysema?

Emphysema is a condition that causes shortness of breath and coughing. It is one of several conditions that grouped together are known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

In people with emphysema, the air sacs, or alveoli, of the lungs are damaged. This causes the small airways to collapse when air is breathed out, which makes it hard for air to flow into the lungs and even harder for it to flow out. Over time, the lung tissue becomes stiff and cannot take oxygen into the body as effectively.

What are the symptoms of emphysema?

The symptoms of emphysema depend on how severe the underlying lung disease has become. People with emphysema are often short of breath. As the disease progresses, the periods of breathlessness become more frequent. It becomes harder to do everyday activities or to exercise. Eventually, people are continually short of breath, even when sitting or lying down.

People with emphysema also often have:

  • a persistent cough
  • phlegm
  • wheezing
  • weight loss
  • swelling of the feet and legs, which can be a sign of heart problems

At times, the symptoms may get worse suddenly. This may mean you should see a doctor - for example, in case you need antibiotics for a chest infection.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes emphysema?

Most people with emphysema smoke or have smoked in the past. A very small proportion of people get emphysema because they inherited a faulty gene that normally helps to keep the air sacs of the lungs healthy.

Other causes of emphysema include:

  • passive smoking, particularly when you are a baby
  • exposure to industrial dust and chemicals
  • exposure to air pollutants

Whatever the cause, smoking makes emphysema worse.

How is emphysema diagnosed?

Most people are diagnosed in their 50s, though if you have a faulty gene you may be diagnosed earlier. Your doctor can diagnose emphysema by talking to you and examining you. They may also ask for:

  • blood tests
  • chest x-rays
  • a separate test of blood from an artery to check oxygen levels
  • breathing tests to see how well your lungs work

Some people may also be asked to have:

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is emphysema managed?

The damage to the lungs caused by emphysema cannot be reversed, but many treatments can help manage the symptoms and improve a person's quality of life. These treatments improve the flow of air into the lungs and by preventing complications.

Treatment is tailored to how severely the emphysema is affecting your health and your ability to do things.

Quitting smoking is the best treatment to slow the worsening of emphysema symptoms.

If you have emphysema, you may be given inhalers or tablets to help open up your airways and reduce inflammation. You may need antibiotics if you have a chest infection.

A pulmonary rehabilitation program provides exercises and education to help people with emphysema manage their breathlessness. It may include exercises to increase physical function, and knowledge about breathing techniques, how to use medication correctly and how to conserve energy.

In more severe cases, people with emphysema will need to breathe oxygen from a portable cylinder to temporarily boost oxygen levels in the blood. Very occasionally, surgery can be useful.

There are other things you can do to manage:

  • eat a balanced diet
  • get enough rest
  • exercise regularly (speak to your doctor first)
  • avoid air pollution and other people's smoke
  • get vaccinated against the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia
  • have regular check-ups with your doctor

Can emphysema be prevented?

The best way to prevent emphysema is to quit smoking. Most people who develop emphysema have smoked for many years, and most long-term smokers will have some degree of emphysema.

Quitting smoking also prevents complications of emphysema.

Complications of emphysema

Emphysema can stop people from doing their daily activities, sleep or exercise. They often develop other chronic conditions such as asthma, back problems, cancer, diabetes, heart problems, stroke and kidney disease.

COPD, which includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma, is the second leading cause of hospital admissions in Australia and the fifth most common cause of death.

Resources and support

Visit the Lung Foundation Australia website for more information about emphysema and COPD.

If you are trying to quit smoking, help is available via Quitline on 13 78 48.

Support for carers

Learn more about the practical, financial and emotional support and services available to carers. For carers' services in your state or territory visit Carers Australia.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2020


Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Emphysema - MyDr.com.au

In people with emphysema, the walls of the tiny air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) become gradually damaged, causing breathing difficulties. Smoking is the main cause of this condition.

Read more on myDr website

Emphysema - Better Health Channel

Emphysema is generally caused by cigarette smoking or long-term exposure to certain industrial pollutants or dusts.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency and Lung Disease

Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is a genetic (inherited) condition that may result in chronic lung and/or liver disease.

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

COPD Overview

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for a group of progressive lung conditions

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for the lung diseases emphysema, chronic bronchitis and bronchiectasis.

Read more on WA Health website

Living with COPD - Asthma Australia

1 in 7 people over 40 have COPD, I am one of them…My name is Patricia and I have Stage 4 Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease more commonly known as COPD.

Read more on Asthma Australia website

COPD: treatment and management - MyDr.com.au

Although COPD cannot be cured, there are measures that can be taken that should relieve symptoms, slow progression and prevent complications.

Read more on myDr website

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: COPD - MyDr.com.au

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a long-term (chronic) condition that affects the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

Read more on myDr website

Lung conditions - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - Better Health Channel

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is the collective term for a number of lung diseases that prevent proper breathing.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease | National Centre for Farmer Health

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and respiratory illness is a major cause of death in Australia and is more common in farming communities. Read more...

Read more on National Centre for Farmer Health website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo