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Emphysema is a condition that causes shortness of breath and coughing. It is one of several conditions which grouped together are known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — one of the most common causes of death in Australia.

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 can't take oxygen into the body as effectively.

Smoking is the main cause of emphysema, so quitting smoking is the most important step in easing the symptoms. Help is available via Quitline on 13 78 48.

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 and COPD 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.

Emphysema symptoms

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. Eventually, people are continually short of breath, even when sitting or lying down.

People with emphysema also often have:

  • a persistent cough
  • phlegm
  • wheezing
  • 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.

Emphysema diagnosis

Most people are diagnosed in their 50s, though if you have a faulty gene you may be diagnosed earlier. Your doctor can diagnose emphysemaby 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:

Emphysema treatment

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.

Other treatments include:

  • special exercises designed to improve breathing
  • eating a balanced diet, getting enough rest and exercising regularly
  • avoiding air pollution and other people's smoke
  • being vaccinated against the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia
  • using medicines to open the airways and to prevent and treat infections
  • in more severe cases, breathing oxygen from a portable cylinder to temporarily boost oxygen levels in the blood

Very occasionally, surgery can be useful.

Are you a carer or helping someone out?

Carers are everyday people who provide unpaid and ongoing care and support to someone they know who has disability, mental illness, drug or alcohol dependancy, a chronic condition, terminal illness or who is frail.

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 2018

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