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Emphysema: Symptoms, Causes and Life Expectancy

By: by Amino Science
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A stubborn cough that doesn’t want to go away can be concerning for anyone. But if you’re a former smoker, it can be a scary situation, and the possibility of a health condition like emphysema has likely crossed your mind.

Emphysema is a serious condition that affects millions of Americans, some of whom aren’t even aware they have the disease. So how do you know if your cough is just a stubborn cough or something more serious? We’re here to keep you informed with the common causes, symptoms, and treatments for emphysema.

What Is Emphysema?

To understand emphysema, you should first understand another health condition affecting the lungs. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) occurs when a patient has chronic issues with his or her lungs that make breathing difficult. The two main health conditions that comprise COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Emphysema contributes to COPD by damaging lung tissue over time, including damaging and destroying the air sacs called alveoli. When you inhale, the alveoli expand to welcome in oxygen and carry it to the blood. And when you exhale, the alveoli contract, releasing carbon dioxide out of the body.

When a person’s alveoli become damaged or destroyed, the surface area of the lungs decreases, and it becomes difficult for that person to breathe in new oxygen. The less oxygen someone breathes in means a decreased amount of oxygen is getting into that person’s bloodstream. Not getting adequate oxygen into the bloodstream can result in damage throughout the body, including to vital organs.

Symptoms of Emphysema

The most common early symptoms of emphysema include:

  • A chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath

In addition to shortness of breath and a persistent cough, the most common late-stage symptoms of emphysema include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Successive lung infections
  • Frequent wheezing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Blue tinge to the lips and/or fingernails

Emphysema Causes

According to the American Lung Association, the leading cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking. It’s important to note, however, that not all smokers will develop emphysema and not all cases of emphysema are caused by smoking. Some emphysema patients have never been smokers themselves but have been exposed to secondhand smoke from others and exposed to certain environmental contaminants, such as air pollution. Rarely, emphysema can be inherited through a disorder called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which is a known cause of liver and lung diseases.

Diagnosing Emphysema

As with most medical diagnoses, your exam will begin with a medical history intake, including your exposure to cigarette smoke and various pollutants. From there, tests will be ordered, including:

  • Chest X-rays and CT scans
  • Blood tests
  • Pulse oximetry (oxygen test)
  • Lung functioning tests
  • Arterial blood gas tests (to check the blood and carbon dioxide levels of your blood)
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)

Causes and symptoms of emphysema

Emphysema Life Expectancy

The life expectancy of someone with emphysema must be assessed on a case-by-case basis as the disease may be diagnosed early or in late stages. Like with other chronic diseases, the earlier emphysema is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can start, and the better the life expectancy for the patient.

Additionally, emphysema may manifest differently in one person than in another. Not everyone will experience the same symptoms or the same rate of progression of the disease. Similarly, not everyone will respond to or benefit the same way from treatment. If you’ve been diagnosed with emphysema, you should speak with your physician about what treatment options will help improve your prognosis and overall quality of life.

Treating Emphysema


Certain medications may be prescribed to help manage a patient’s symptoms, but medications cannot slow the decline in lung function. Some COPD medications may help the patient breathe more easily, have a more active lifestyle, and experience fewer symptom flares.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is a chance for emphysema patients to take a series of classes with fellow emphysema patients to learn about their shared disease and how to exercise with reduced shortness of breath. These classes help patients become more active by teaching them how to exercise their lungs and muscles. The classes also serve patients by providing emotional support in a group setting.

Oxygen Therapy

Since emphysema reduces the amount of oxygen entering the body through the lungs, oxygen therapy is sometimes an option to help emphysema patients get the supplemental oxygen they need to live their daily lives.

Lung Surgery

Patients with severe emphysema and irreparable lung damage may require surgery in the form of either lung volume reduction surgery which removes a section of the damaged lung, or a lung transplant which replaces the entire lung with a healthy donor lung.

Amino Acids

Amino acids have long been known to benefit the body. Essential amino acids are the foundation the body needs to build protein, form muscles and tissue, and produce chemicals that are essential for the body to function properly and maintain health. Research has shown that they may also help COPD patients improve their overall well-being.

A study published by the Monaldi Archives for Chest Disease showed that oral supplements of essential amino acids improved life quality for COPD patients, including their daily activities, nutrition, cognitive state, and muscle strength.

It is best to take a balanced mixture of all essential amino acids to make sure that the blood concentration of amino acids is optimal. It’s also a good idea to discuss any new supplements or at-home treatments with your physician before starting them, especially if an underlying condition such as emphysema is present.

While smokers and former smokers are at risk for emphysema and other lung-related health issues, smoking is not the only risk factor for emphysema. With secondhand smoke, air pollutants, and environmental factors, just about everyone could be considered at risk.

It’s always best to be upfront with your health care provider about your history with smoking of any kind and any known exposure to chemicals, fumes, or air pollutants. The more informed your doctor is about your health history, the more of a head’s up he or she will have when it comes to looking into symptoms such as a persistent cough or shortness of breath. Emphysema may sound scary, but there are treatment options available to help improve and maintain quality of life post-diagnosis.

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