What is emphysema?

Emphysema Before and After

Emphysema is a serious disease of the lungs that is usually caused by smoking, but can be caused by other airborne toxins. In emphysema, the lung’s air sacs, called alveoli, become damaged. The walls of the air sacs grow weak and lose their elastic qualities. These natural elastic fibers help you to breath out after you take a breath in (much like a rubber balloon empties after you have blown it up). Eventually these alveoli can tear, forming empty spaces called bullae. Small airways also become narrow, reducing the flow of air. The combination of damaged alveoli and narrowed airways cause problems with breathing out. The number of individuals with emphysema in the United States is estimated to be 2 million.

You may hear the term “COPD” used with emphysema. COPD means chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, meaning that you have difficulty with getting air in and out of your lungs. The two types of COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis and a person may have both. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

To learn more:

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?
(National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)
A brief and simple explanation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
How Your Lungs Work
(Canadian Lung Association)
This link on the Canadian Lung Association Web site has pictures showing how normal lungs and lungs damaged by emphysema work.

next » What causes emphysema?

Written by: Lillian Trettin, Ph.D.
Reviewed by: Jeffrey G. Schultze, M.D.
Last Modified: Monday December 09, 2019 12:19 PM