Signs and Symptoms of Emphysema

signs and symptoms of emphysemaEmphysema 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 identify the disease and its severity in a patient. They 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, nailbeds 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.

Symptoms of Emphysema

Symptoms of emphysema 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. 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 a 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.

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 and symptoms of emphysema 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.

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

By Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


2 thoughts on “Signs and Symptoms of Emphysema”

  1. Avatar Wayne Bolton says:

    Very informative and very useful.

  2. Avatar antonino mineo says:

    the left apical pleural-parenchyma opacity with nodular component is reduced by the comparative evaluation. post-inflammatory healing is favored.

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