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Emphysema & COPD

When you are trying to understand the difference between COPD and emphysema, it can be a little confusing. At times, people use the terms interchangeably, while at other times, the two diseases are treated as separate ailments. If you have ever found yourself researching, “What is the difference between COPD and emphysema?” you may have come away unclear about the answer. Read on to get a better understanding of emphysema vs. COPD, as well as understanding how COPD and emphysema can differ.

Difference Between COPD & Emphysema

To truly clarify, “What is the difference between COPD and emphysema?” it is important to understand that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a term describing a group of progressive lung diseases that all cause worsening breathlessness. COPD can include a number of different lung diseases that, together, make it difficult for air to move easily in and out of the airways, including chronic bronchitis, asthma and emphysema. So, if you have been diagnosed with COPD, you may or may not have emphysema.

Emphysema, on the other hand, describes a very specific lung disease. With emphysema, the walls of the air sacs in the lungs are destroyed, which causes them to collapse. This creates one large area that holds air, rather than many small spaces, thereby reducing the surface area within the lungs that can absorb oxygen. This means your lungs are less efficient at absorbing oxygen, so less oxygen makes it to your bloodstream. The damage to the lungs’ air sacs also means that the lungs are less efficient at exhaling fully, which means air can get stuck inside the lungs. This also reduces the amount of air you are able to inhale on your next breath, which means even less oxygen gets to your bloodstream. If you are diagnosed with emphysema, you have also been diagnosed with COPD, since emphysema is one of the diseases that falls under the COPD diagnosis.

In short, the difference between COPD and emphysema is that emphysema is a part of COPD. While COPD is the overarching umbrella term for a group of diseases that damages your lungs and causes increasing breathlessness, emphysema is one of the diseases that falls under that umbrella. If you have emphysema, you also have COPD; however, a COPD diagnosis might not include emphysema.

COPD Emphysema Symptoms

The damage that emphysema causes to the air sacs in your lungs ultimately causes a lack of lung elasticity, along with difficulty exhaling fully and getting enough oxygen. People with emphysema often over-inflate their lungs in an effort to get more oxygen, and when they are unable to fully exhale that air, the spent air is trapped inside the lungs and reduces the ability to get a proper lung full of air on the next inhale. As a result, shortness of breath gets increasingly worse and the amount of oxygen the lungs can access and absorb gets smaller and smaller.

COPD emphysema symptoms often come on slowly, and only after damage has already occurred within the lungs. As such, if you are at a higher risk for developing COPD and emphysema, it is important to know the symptoms so you can recognize them early on. As with all progressive diseases, early detection can help slow the progression of COPD and emphysema, as well as making treatment more successful. Here are the COPD emphysema symptoms you should look out for:

  • Barrel chest
  • Blue tinge to the lips or nail beds
  • Chest tightness
  • Clubbing of the fingers
  • Frequent respiratory infections and colds
  • Low energy
  • Persistent cough: May produce colorful mucus
  • Shortness of breath: At first during exertion, but getting progressively worse even when at rest
  • Swelling of lower extremities
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Wheezing

Each of these symptoms will worsen with time, so catching and treating them as early as possible is key to successful treatment.

How to Improve Your COPD Emphysema Symptoms

When it comes to treating emphysema vs. COPD, your doctor may choose a combination of treatments for the best results. While COPD and emphysema cannot be cured, your COPD emphysema symptoms can be treated. Most often, your doctor will prescribe medication to help you breathe easier, along with a therapy like pulmonary rehabilitation or oxygen therapy. Pulmonary rehabilitation can improve your exercise tolerance and help you learn to breathe more effectively, while also providing counseling and education to help you stay as healthy as possible. Oxygen therapy can be used in conjunction with pulmonary rehab or medication to help improve your oxygen saturation and help you breathe better, particularly during physical activity.

If your doctor recommends oxygen therapy, there are a number of delivery systems available. However, portable oxygen concentrators, like those from Inogen, allow you to receive your oxygen treatments at home or on the go, without any changes required in your gear or delivery system. As long as your battery is charged or you have power access, you will have an endless supply of supplemental oxygen. Even better, our portable oxygen concentrators weigh between 2.8 and 4.8 pounds, so you can easily bring them with you for oxygen anytime, anywhere. Talk to your doctor about whether a portable oxygen concentrator is right for treating your COPD and emphysema symptoms, and contact Inogen today to find out more about how our products can improve your quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions: Emphysema vs. COPD

Can your lungs heal from emphysema?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for emphysema and you cannot reverse existing lung damage. Your lung damage and your symptoms will continue to worsen without treatment. However, there are many treatments that can help treat and improve symptoms, slow the progression of your disease and prevent additional lung damage. Depending on the severity of your emphysema, your doctor may suggest medications, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, diet and lifestyle changes or even surgery to help treat your disease. If you have emphysema, talk to your doctor about the best course of treatment for your COPD emphysema symptoms.

How long can you live after being diagnosed with emphysema?

Your life expectancy with emphysema depends on a number of different factors, but smoking is the number one factor. If you do not quit smoking, your emphysema (and any associated lung damage) will continue to progress and your symptoms will worsen. Continuing to smoke can shorten your life expectancy by 10 years or more. After that, the stage of your emphysema makes a difference. People with mild emphysema who quit smoking have a normal life expectancy.[1] If you are in later stages, your lifestyle choices make a difference. If you quit smoking and make healthy choices regarding diet, exercise and keeping up with your treatments, you will likely be able to maintain your quality of life for a long time. People with severe emphysema have a solid chance of surviving for at least five years. 

Does exercise help emphysema or COPD?

Though it may surprise you, exercise is an essential part of maintaining your respiratory health, even with COPD and emphysema. Exercise helps improve your circulation, which can help with your body’s oxygenation. It also helps keep your lungs and airways as elastic as possible and in good shape, which ultimately helps you breathe easier. Talk to your doctor about what kind of moderate exercise is best for you, but generally speaking, a daily walk, swimming session or bike ride are great options. Stretching and resistance training are also helpful and can help keep your muscles as strong and flexible as possible. If you feel short of breath during regular exercise, talk to your doctor about what you should do to improve your endurance. You may need to adjust how you exercise or incorporate oxygen therapy into your exercise routine. 

How fast does emphysema progress?

Emphysema usually progresses slowly and the majority of patients do not notice the changes in their breathing. In many cases, patients may smoke a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years before they experience symptoms.[1]  Some patients do experience a faster onset of symptoms, though that is less common. Generally speaking, the amount a patient currently smokes, their smoking history, their long-term exposure to lung irritants and their genetics, along with their overall health, plays a large part in how quickly the disease progresses.



[1] Harvard Health Publishing. “Emphysema.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health Publishing, March 2019, https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/emphysema-a-to-z.

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