Symptoms of Emphysema

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Emphysema is among a group of lung diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In emphysema, the alveoli of the lungs—the area where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged—become damaged, causing them to enlarge and burst. This makes it difficult for people with emphysema to expel all their air, causing a build-up of carbon dioxide in the body.

Commonly caused by cigarette smoking, emphysema involves gradual damage to lung tissue. As alveoli are destroyed, it becomes progressively difficult to breathe. People with emphysema typically experience shortness of breath with activities, which progresses to chronic bronchitis and a daily or almost-daily cough and phlegm.

Symptoms of emphysema are insidious in nature and may not, at first, be easy to recognize. There is no cure for the disease and it tends to worsen over time. However, there are several treatments available that can help manage the symptoms. Recognizing the symptoms of emphysema will lead to earlier diagnosis and emphysema treatment.

Frequent Symptoms

You can have emphysema without any symptoms. The most common signs of emphysema are:

Shortness of Breath

Also known as dyspnea, shortness of breath is the hallmark symptom of emphysema. Talk to your doctor about breaking the dyspnea cycle and specific exercises that can help you alleviate shortness of breath.

Rapid Breathing

Tachypnea is the medical term for rapid breathing, which is another common symptom of emphysema.

Chronic Cough

A person with emphysema usually has a history of cigarette smoking accompanied by a long-term chronic cough. A cough may be either be productive (with sputum) or non-productive (without sputum).


Wheezing, especially on the exhale, is a common finding among emphysema patients.

Reduced Exercise Tolerance

Many people with emphysema have decreased exercise tolerance, which often gets worse as emphysema progresses. You can, however, improve your exercise tolerance with the right strategies.

Out of breath woman
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Rare Symptoms

There are four stages of emphysema. The following symptoms are rare and occur later in the disease stage:

Loss of Appetite

Anorexia is the medical term for loss of appetite, not to be confused with the mental condition, anorexia nervosa, which has nothing to do with COPD. In later stages of the disease, a loss of appetite leads to weight loss due to shortness of breath during mealtimes

Barrel Chest

A barrel chest is a rounded, bulging, barrel-like appearance of the chest that is common in the later stages of emphysema.

Poor Sleep, Depression, and Decreased Sexual Function

Although the symptoms mentioned above are most commonly associated with emphysema, poor sleep, decreased sexual function, and depression also play an important role in decreasing the quality of life for people who have the disease.

When to See a Doctor

People with undiagnosed emphysema typically have a history of bronchitis and upper respiratory infections. If you have completed your course of treatment, but still have lingering symptoms talk to your doctor.

You should also see your doctor if you experience unexplained shortness of breath for several months, especially if it interferes with your daily activities. Some people mistakenly think they are out of breath because they are getting older or out of shape and delay getting a proper diagnosis, so be sure to discuss with your doctor.

When To Call 911

Seek immediate medical attention if:

  • You can't climb stairs because you are short of breath
  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray with exertion
  • You're not mentally alert
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Article Sources

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  1. NIH: U.S. National Library of Medicine. Emphysema Symptoms.

Additional Reading

  • Bare, Brenda G. & Smeltzer, Suzanne C. Brunner and Suddarth's Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing(8th Edition). Philidelphia, PA: Lippincott-Raven Publishers.