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Emphysema is a lung condition that causes shortness of breath. In people with emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs are damaged. Over time, the inner walls of the air sacs weaken and rupture creating larger air spaces instead of many small ones. This reduces the surface area of the lungs and, in turn, the amount of oxygen that reaches the bloodstream.

Upon exhaling, the damaged alveoli don’t work properly and old air becomes trapped, leaving no room for fresh, oxygen-rich air to enter.

The main cause of emphysema is long-term exposure to airborne irritants, including:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Marijuana smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Chemical fumes and dust

Rarely, emphysema is caused by an inherited deficiency of a protein that protects the elastic structures in the lungs. It’s called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency emphysema.

Most people with emphysema also have chronic bronchitis. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two conditions that make up chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Signs & Symptoms

The main symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath, which usually begins gradually and advances until it occurs even at rest.

Patients with unexplained shortness of breath for several months should see a doctor, especially if it’s getting worse or it’s interfering with daily activities.


A Deborah physician will take a full medical history and do a physical exam. Additional tests may be ordered.

  • Imaging tests
    • Chest x-ray
    • CT scan
  • Lab tests
  • Lung function tests