Emphysema Facts and Statistics: What You Need to Know

Over 3 million Americans have been diagnosed with emphysema. The number of people estimated to have emphysema, including those undiagnosed, is even higher: 14 million. It is one of the most preventable forms of lung disease because the most common cause is smoking cigarettes.

This article will provide the essential facts and statistics about emphysema.

A healthcare provider discussing a lung X-ray with patient.

Visoot Uthairam / Getty Images

Emphysema Overview

Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It causes damage to the air sacs in the lungs. In emphysema, the many tiny holes in the walls of the air sacs start to get larger and fewer in number. They lose their flexible shape and become limp and saggy. This makes it hard for your body to get oxygen, and breathing becomes difficult.

Are COPD and Emphysema the Same Condition?

There are two main types of COPD: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. However, these conditions are not the same as COPD. For instance, someone diagnosed with COPD may not have emphysema. However, many people with COPD have one or both conditions.

How Common Is Emphysema?

About 40 out of 1,000 people in the United States are estimated to have emphysema. Between 2014 and 2017, the number of people with COPD was stable. However, diagnoses began to increase in 2018.

Emphysema by Ethnicity

The rates of emphysema are higher in non-Hispanic White people than in all other ethnic groups. The reasons for this are not well understood, and studies are ongoing. Researchers think it could be due to differences in access to care, smoking patterns. or vulnerability to disease in certain populations.

Emphysema by Age and Gender

Age-related changes to the lungs are similar to symptoms of COPD. Increasing age contributes to overall lung degeneration. This includes the loss of lung elasticity, the main manifestation of emphysema. Emphysema is more common in people over the age of 65.

Emphysema also is diagnosed more often in men than women. In the past, this difference reflected the higher rates of smoking among men. But over the last 20 years, the rates have begun to merge; rates among men have decreased, and rates among women have increased.

Emphysema Rates, 2018
 Men  1.6%
 Women  1.4%
 Age over 65  4.2%
 Age 45–64  1.6%
 Age 18–44  0.2%

Causes of Emphysema and Risk Factors

Emphysema is caused by long-term exposure to air pollutants that damage your lungs. These include cigarette smoke and environmental pollution. The leading cause of emphysema in the United States is a history of smoking cigarettes.

The four main risk factors for emphysema are:

  • Cigarette smoke: Almost 75% of those diagnosed with emphysema currently smoke or have smoked in the past.
  • Exposure to lung irritants: This includes secondhand smoke, air pollution (tree pollen, car emissions, smog), and fumes from factories or workplaces that handle chemicals.
  • Age: Most people diagnosed with emphysema are over 40 years old.
  • Genetics: Some people are born with a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AAT). AAT is a protein made by the liver that protects the lungs. In this condition, the proteins are shaped differently, get stuck in the liver, and do not get to the lungs.

What Are the Mortality Rates for Emphysema?

The mortality rate (the rate of death) for emphysema is 2.3 per 100,000 people. However, the average mortality rate for COPD is about 100 per 100,000 people. These rates depend on disease severity and if a person has other health conditions along with emphysema. For instance, someone with COPD may have emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and asthma.

What Is a Survival Rate?

Survival rates do not mean a person has been cured of a health condition or that their treatment is done. Nor does it predict how their treatment will go. Rather, it is the percentage of people who survive a disease for a specified amount of time. This number refers to a broad range of people.

Screening and Early Detection

Emphysema is a condition with no cure, so it must be managed and controlled. In the beginning, symptoms may be mild or nonexistent. They may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing that brings up mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness

Research has not yet established exactly how conditions like COPD and emphysema look in their early stages. However, it’s still important to get diagnosed as early as possible so that you can begin treatment. Early detection can slow the progression of the disease, lessen the chance of health complications, and promote a good quality of life.

If your healthcare provider suspects you have emphysema, they will use the following to make a diagnosis:

  • Medical history: Your healthcare provider will ask about past surgeries and illnesses, allergies, medications, and immunizations.
  • Family history: This will include the health information of close relatives, such as parents, siblings, children, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. 
  • Medical tests: This may include lung function tests, a chest X-ray, or blood tests.

Lung function tests are a series of different tests that show how well your lungs are working and include:

  • Spirometry: This will measure how much and how quickly air moves in and out of your lungs.
  • Lung volume: This tests how much air you can hold in your lungs and how much is left over after you exhale.
  • Gas diffusion: This measures the movement of oxygen and other gases from your lungs to your bloodstream.
  • Exercise stress test: This will show how well your lungs respond to exercise.


Emphysema is a subtype of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). It damages your lungs by making them limp and saggy instead of firm and flexible. This makes it difficult to breathe well. You can be diagnosed with emphysema alone, but most people with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. More men than women have emphysema, but the rates for women are increasing. Older adults are also more likely to have emphysema than younger adults.

Emphysema is considered a chronic condition because there is no cure. If not treated, it will get worse over time. It is important to get diagnosed in the earliest stages of the disease so treatment can begin as soon as possible. People with emphysema can live longer and have a high quality of life if they follow their treatment plans, stay physically active, and eat well.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Lung Association. Emphysema.

  2. StatPearls. Emphysema.

  3. MedlinePlus. Emphysema.

  4. American Lung Association. COPD prevalence.

  5. Gilkes A, Ashworth M, Schofield P, et al. Does COPD risk vary by ethnicity? A retrospective cross-sectional studyInt J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2016;11:739-746. doi: 10.2147/COPD.S96391

  6. Barnes PJ. Sex differences in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease mechanismsAm J Respir Crit Care Med. 2016;193(8):813-814. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201512-2379ED

  7. MedlinePlus: AAT.

  8. Centers for Disease Control. FastStats for COPD, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema.

  9. Centers for Disease Control. State-level estimates for COPD.

  10. Choi JY, Rhee CK. Diagnosis and treatment of early chronic obstructive lung disease(COPD)J Clin Med. 2020;9(11):3426. doi: 10.3390/jcm9113426

  11. National Cancer Institute: Medical history.

  12. MedlinePlus. Lung function tests.

By Carisa Brewster
Carisa D. Brewster is a freelance journalist with over 20 years of experience writing for newspapers, magazines, and digital publications. She specializes in science and healthcare content.