What are the Effects of Emphysema?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Emphysema, a chronic lung condition, can have a number of effects. The primary effects of emphysema are shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. This condition causes permanent physical changes to the structure of the lungs. Left untreated, these changes can get worse, causing severe medical complications, including death, for the patient. The leading cause of emphysema is smoking, followed by environmental pollution, particularly pollution involving high counts of particulates in the air.

Symptoms of emphysema include coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Symptoms of emphysema include coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

In emphysema cases, the air sacs in the lungs, known as alveoli, lose their elasticity in response to chronic irritation. As they become less elastic, they can start to break down. Instead of having numerous tiny alveoli, the lungs develop reduced numbers of larger alveoli. The lungs become less efficient, forcing people to work harder to breathe, and air tends to be retained with each breath.

Smoking damages the lungs and puts a person at an increased risk of developing serious illnesses.
Smoking damages the lungs and puts a person at an increased risk of developing serious illnesses.

The immediate effects of emphysema all surround the patient's difficulty breathing. Patients may have trouble breathing after vigorous exercise, in very hot, dry weather, and in stressful conditions. Fatigue is another common effect, caused by a decrease in oxygen supply to the body. Patients can also develop anxiety and weight loss as the disease progresses. Edema, where fluid collects in the extremities, is another way emphysema affects the body.

Trapped air in the lungs can lead to a condition called barrel chest, where the chest expands as the lungs lose elasticity and air is retained in the chest cavity. This condition can be visible on physical examination and is especially easy to identify on chest X-rays taken from the side. X-rays are also used in the diagnosis of emphysema, as they can reveal the changes in lung structure and provide information about how much lung function has been lost.

Once a patient develops emphysema, the changes to the lungs are irreversible. There are treatments for emphysema available, and many of these treatments will address the effects of emphysema as well. These treatments include medications to improve lung function, lifestyle changes like quitting smoking to limit further damage to the lungs, and transplant, in extreme cases.

People with a history of smoking or exposure to environmental pollution who start to develop effects of emphysema like difficulty breathing, a dry, unproductive cough, and wheezing should seek medical treatment. They may have emphysema or another pulmonary condition. Left untreated, such conditions can be fatal, and treatment options decline in number the longer patients wait for treatment.

Chest x-rays can be used to help diagnose emphysema.
Chest x-rays can be used to help diagnose emphysema.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Perdido – My friend who is a nurse told me that it can take twenty to thirty years of smoking for you to develop emphysema. My husband smokes, and I am always worried about his health, so I asked her how long she thinks he could live a healthy life.

However, you never know whether or not he will get it. Some people live their whole lives as smokers and never develop it, while others get it even though they only smoked a few years. I think genetics plays a part in it, too.


Does anyone know how long you would have to smoke to run the risk of getting emphysema? My husband recently quit smoking, and I am hoping that he did it soon enough to prevent his risk of getting this disease.

He smoked from the time he was eighteen until he turned twenty-six. That's only eight years, but it's nearly a third of his life so far.

Is he most likely safe, since he quit sooner than most people do? I would hate to think that he could get this disease anyway, after all his hard work to quit. I'm sure that he has some degree of lung damage, but he is so much healthier now.


My grandfather lived for years with emphysema. The sad thing is that he had quit smoking decades before he developed it. It seemed that this good accomplishment didn't serve him well, after all.

Oh, he probably got a few more years added to his life because of it, but the fact is that it didn't stop him from getting it. He struggled to breathe more and more each day. I could hear a constant wheezing in his lungs from across the room.

His legs and feet swelled up with fluid. He had to eventually go to a hospice house. It broke my mother's heart to see him suffering.


@golf07 – It is heartbreaking how addictive smoking is. My uncle found out last year that he has emphysema, and he continues to chain smoke. He is also old and overweight, so continuing to smoke will be even worse for him than for an otherwise healthy person.

His thinking is that he knows his years are coming to an end soon, so he might as well enjoy the rest of them. Battling to quit smoking would make his life miserable, and he just doesn't want that kind of stress so near the end of his life.


I will say that quitting smoking was one of the best, but hardest things I have ever done. After losing my good friend to lung cancer and emphysema when he was 35, I knew I really needed to stop.

I know that I have some irreversible lung damage that I can't do anything about, but I can change what I do from here on out.

I figured the discomfort I would go through when trying to quit smoking would be nothing compared to the consequences I might face later on down the road.

The effects of cancer and emphysema that I saw in my friend were a big motivation for me to stick with it.


With my brother, the side effects of emphysema started out slowly, but eventually became very debilitating.

He was a smoker for most of his life and the effects of this eventually took a toll on him. He knew it was not good for him, but was never able to successfully quit.

It was hard to listen to his coughing, wheezing and trying to breathe. Because it happened so gradually I don't think he noticed it as much as those around him did.

Even when he was using oxygen, he was not able to take in a full breath and was very limited in his activity. The side effects of smoking and emphysema eventually took his life, and I know he wishes he had never started smoking.

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