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What are the Symptoms of Emphysema?

By R. Anacan
Updated May 16, 2024
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Emphysema is an irreversible disease of the lungs that that makes it difficult for a person to breathe. Emphysema is a progressive disease which cannot be stopped once it has developed. However, treatment may be able to slow the progression of the disease; therefore it is important that those experiencing the symptoms of emphysema consult with their doctors as soon as possible.

One of the early symptoms of emphysema is shortness of breath when performing a physical activity. Emphysema damages the alveoli, or air sacs, in the lungs. The damaged air sacs are not able to effectively transfer some of the oxygen that has been inhaled into the bloodstream, causing shortness of breath.

Emphysema also reduces the ability of the lungs to exhale air completely. This limits the amount of oxygen-rich air that can be inhaled by the lungs. As the disease progresses, it can not only cause shortness of breath during a physical activity but can also cause difficulty breathing while a person is at rest. If a person notices that he tires easily doing routine activities, or is unable to perform low exertion or moderate exercises due to shortness of breath, he should contact his doctor immediately.

In addition to shortness of breath, wheezing is another of the common symptoms of emphysema. Wheezing may be heard during exhaling, inhaling or both. While wheezing is a sign that the lungs may not be working properly due to other medical conditions, the wheezing associated with emphysema generally occurs during the early part of exhalation.

Another of the common symptoms of emphysema is a persistent cough. A person with emphysema may have a constant cough that may or may not produce excess mucus that needs to be expelled. A persistent cough may also be indicative of respiratory conditions other than, or combined with emphysema, such as bronchitis, so a doctor should be consulted if the cough doesn’t go away or if it constantly produces yellow or green mucus.

Symptoms of emphysema may also include tightness in the chest, fatigue, loss of appetite or weight, a bluish tint to the skin, especially around the mouth, confusion, and dizziness. While the presence of these symptoms may not mean a person has emphysema, these symptoms may be signs that the body is experiencing respiratory difficulty and is not receiving enough oxygen. If any of these symptoms persist, a doctor should be notified.

It is believed that approximately three million people in the United States have been diagnosed with the disease and that 120,000 people die from it each year. This makes emphysema the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. While heredity and age is a factor for some who develop emphysema, by far the greatest cause of the disease is cigarette, pipe or cigar smoking.

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