Signs and Symptoms of Emphysema

signs and symptoms of emphysema

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in which the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs enlarge and eventually rupture. Once the air sacs are damaged, the lungs lose their elasticity and exhalation becomes difficult. As lung damage progresses, the effort it takes to breathe increases and breathing becomes labored. 

Smoking is by far the most common cause of emphysema, but a genetic condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency and air pollution also play a role in its development. There is no cure for emphysema, but treatment can make the disease more manageable and easier to live with.

Signs of Emphysema

Signs of emphysema generally describe what a doctor looks for when trying to diagnose the disease and measure its severity in a patient. The signs of emphysema include:

  • Barrel chest – A rounded, barrel-like appearance of the chest that occurs due to long-term over-inflation of the lungs. Barrel chest is seen in the more advanced stages of the disease.
  • Clubbing of the fingers – Occurs in advanced emphysema whereby the tips of the fingers become abnormally rounded due to low oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Polycythemia – A condition in which the body produces an increased amount of red blood cells in response to low levels of oxygen in the blood.
  • Hypoxemia – The medical term for low oxygen in the blood. This condition can be detected with a pulse oximeter or a blood test known as an arterial blood gas study.
  • Hypercapnia – The medical term for excess carbon dioxide in the blood. Hypercapnia occurs as a result of the body’s inability to properly exhale carbon dioxide during the breathing process. This condition can be detected with an arterial blood gas study.
  • Cyanosis – A bluish tint of the lips, nail beds and sometimes earlobes. This condition occurs due to low blood oxygen levels in the more advanced stages of emphysema.
  • Malnutrition and cachexia – Loss of appetite and weight loss that occurs in advanced emphysema may eventually lead to malnutrition and cachexia, a condition that causes the muscles to slowly waste away.

It is a good idea for patients to be aware of the signs of emphysema, particularly if they are a smoker, have been frequently exposed to lung irritants or know that they have a genetic tendency toward the disease. Being aware of the signs of emphysema allows patients to watch out for early signs and seek medical treatment as soon as possible. While emphysema cannot be cured, early detection can help slow the progression of the disease.

Symptoms of Emphysema

Emphysema symptoms typically describe what a patient with emphysema feels. The most common symptom of emphysema is progressively worsening shortness of breath. Initially, shortness of breath may only be noticeable during periods of exertion, such as when mowing the lawn or climbing stairs. However, this is one of the hallmark emphysema symptoms, which continues to get worse as the disease progresses. In the advanced stages of the disease, shortness of breath may occur even at rest. Other common symptoms of emphysema include:

  • Wheezing – Defined as a high-pitched whistling sound made during exhalation (and sometimes inhalation) as a result of narrowing or blockage of the airways. Relief of wheezing in emphysema is often achieved through the use of medications known as bronchodilators.
  • Persistent cough – Many people with emphysema experience a long-term cough that persists even after they quit smoking. A persistent cough in emphysema may or may not produce mucus.
  • Chest tightness or painThis symptom can be related to a lung infection or heart disease that may be present along with emphysema.

Less common symptoms of emphysema that may occur in the later stages of the disease include loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss, depression, poor sleep quality and sexual dysfunction. Emphysema symptoms often affect patients’ quality of life, particularly as they become more severe. Anxiety and fear are also associated with emphysema symptoms, so being aware of what to expect could help patients be better prepared.

Signs and Symptoms of Emphysema: When Do They Appear?

It may take years of repeated exposure to tobacco smoke and/or other airway irritants for signs of emphysema and emphysema symptoms to appear. If you experience any of the signs and symptoms listed above, especially if you have a history of exposure to tobacco smoke or other noxious stimuli, make an appointment to see your health care provider as soon as possible. The sooner you catch the signs of emphysema, the sooner you can begin treating your emphysema symptoms and, hopefully, slow the progression of this disease.

Treating Your Emphysema Symptoms

When it comes to treating emphysema, the first thing you need to do is quit smoking. If you are not a smoker, it is still important to minimize your exposure to secondhand smoke, and other lung irritants, to reduce the likelihood of further aggravating your lungs. Once you have minimized your exposure to irritants, your doctor will be able to help you choose the right treatments for your emphysema symptoms. 

In general, doctors begin with three forms of treatment: 

  • Medication: This could include antibiotics, bronchodilators or corticosteroids, depending on your emphysema symptoms.
  •  Oxygen Therapy: Emphysema causes shortness of breath and difficulty breathing because of damage within the lungs, and supplemental oxygen can improve your oxygen saturation, easing your emphysema symptoms and improving quality of life.
  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Pulmonary rehab can include nutritional and emotional counseling, education, exercise and support in order to help ease your emphysema symptoms, improve your quality of life and potentially even extend your life.

Oxygen Therapy Can Help Ease Emphysema Symptoms

The signs of emphysema can be frightening to live with, but treatment can improve your quality of life. One of the most successful treatments for emphysema symptoms is oxygen therapy. Supplemental oxygen can significantly improve wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath, helping you breathe easier and with less exertion. Supplemental oxygen also helps to treat hypoxemia and hypoxia, allowing you to get adequate oxygen.

When patients are prescribed oxygen therapy, many worry it will hold them back from living as normally as possible. However, with portable oxygen concentrators like those from Inogen, you may even be able to do more than you could before. These small, lightweight portable oxygen concentrators allow you to receive oxygen therapy at home or on the go. Talk to your doctor to see if a portable oxygen concentrator is right for your oxygen therapy for emphysema. Contact Inogen to find out more about how we can help improve your freedom, mobility and independence, even while treating your emphysema symptoms. 

By Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN



WebMD. “Emphysema Symptoms”. Last reviewed May 23, 2014.


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