In this St. Barnabas blog, we discuss the signs and symptoms of emphysema.

If you are unfamiliar with this condition, emphysema occurs when the air sacs in the lungs are gradually damaged. This makes a person progressively short of breath.

In a previous blog, we covered the topic of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  Emphysema is actually one of the two main types of COPD, with chronic bronchitis being the other.

The leading cause of emphysema is smoking; however, airborne irritants such as air pollution, manufacturing emissions and tobacco smoke are also potential causes of emphysema with long-term exposure.

Interestingly enough, a person can actually have emphysema for many years without knowing. Gradual onset shortness of breath is the main symptom of emphysema. However,  chronic cough, fatigue, reduced appetite/weight loss, wheezing and frequent respiratory infections are also symptoms of this condition.

In time, emphysema will cause a person to experience shortness of breath even when at rest.

If your loved one is experiencing shortness of breath for an unexplained reason and it cannot be tied to a certain activity, a doctor’s appointment should be scheduled immediately.

Below are some additional warning signs that elicit medical attention:

  • Decline in mental alertness
  • Fingernails and lips turn gray or blue during exertion
  • Inability to climb the stairs due to shortness of breath

These are all potential signs of emphysema and should be examined immediately.

The risk factors that are commonly associated with emphysema are as follows:

  • Age – Symptoms of this disease are more prevalent between the ages of 40 and 60, especially for people with tobacco-related emphysema.
  • Smoking – As mentioned before, smoking is the leading cause of emphysema. Cigarette smokers are the most susceptible; however cigar and pipe smokers are also at risk.
  • Secondhand smoke – The smoke from another person’s cigarette, cigar or pipe can increase a person’s risk for emphysema.
  • Manufacturing fumes – Long-term exposure to fumes or dust from certain substances, such as chemicals and other factory emissions, can put a person at a higher risk for emphysema.

If you believe your loved one is suffering from any of these symptoms or has been exposed to any of the above risk factors, contact his or her primary care physician to schedule an appointment.


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