What is the Average Emphysema Life Expectancy?

Nick Doniger

The average emphysema life expectancy depends on various factors, the most important being the stage of the illness. However, life expectancy can vary even for patients with the same prognosis and stage. Statistics on life expectancy for emphysema should therefore be only considered as reference rather than a rule. How a patient is responding to the treatment will also have an impact on life expectancy.

Emphysema patients usually do not live for more than four years after their diagnosis.
Emphysema patients usually do not live for more than four years after their diagnosis.

Emphysema is a respiratory illness in which the air sacs of the lungs become over-inflated. There are various causes such as smoking, immune system deficiencies and aging. Upon diagnosis of the condition, clinical tests will provide an estimate for a patient's life expectancy, though the prognosis also depends on the follow-up treatment. A device, called a spirometer, calculates the amount of air a patient can exhale per second. Those with emphysema are usually only capable of exhaling less than half the amount of air of a normal, healthy person. Treatment for emphysema involves reducing symptoms and preventing the condition from progressing further.

Spirometers are used to calculate the life expectancy of an emphysema patient.
Spirometers are used to calculate the life expectancy of an emphysema patient.

Smoking damages the lungs and increases a person's risk of developing emphysema.
Smoking damages the lungs and increases a person's risk of developing emphysema.

Emphysema is diagnosed at four different stages of development. These are: stage one, two, three, and four. These numbers refer to "mild," "moderate," "severe," and "very severe," respectively. Those with stage one or mild emphysema have a life expectancy as any normal, healthy individual. Majority of those (60-70%) with stage two, or moderate, emphysema live more than five years after diagnosis. In stage three and four emphysema, unfortunately, life expectancy is lower. 50% of those with severe emphysema live longer than four years after diagnosis. The life expectancy for those with very severe emphysema is less.

A patient's emphysema prognosis depends on follow-up treatment after the initial diagnosis.
A patient's emphysema prognosis depends on follow-up treatment after the initial diagnosis.

The stage of the illness when the diagnosis is made is important for emphysema treatment and life expectancy. Those who are diagnosed in the earlier stages may extend their life expectancy with medical treatment and lifestyle changes. Those who smoke are at the highest risk of developing the disease, as are those who have a very low body weight. Elderly men are also found to develop the disease more often than other demographic groups. Those who fit into these categories and experience considerable coughing, excess phlegm production, and difficulty breathing are encouraged to see a medical professional for a checkup.

Wheezing and chest tightness are symptoms of emphysema.
Wheezing and chest tightness are symptoms of emphysema.

The most important treatment for many emphysema sufferers may be to stop smoking. Keeping away from secondhand smoke can also help. If emphysema is caused by a lung infection, medications are available and can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

Patients should remember that life expectancy statistics are used for reference. Even those in the same stage of emphysema may have different life expectancy. Early diagnosis, treatment and lifestyle changes can improve life expectancy. It is always best to consult with expert doctors with questions about quality of life and life expectancy with emphysema.

A chest X-ray can be used to diagnose emphysema in patients.
A chest X-ray can be used to diagnose emphysema in patients.

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Discussion Comments


Reading some of this article has me depressed now. I just completed surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer two months ago. In December I had a severe flare up of respiratory distress, hospitalized and diagnosed with severe COPD. I began pulmonary rehab last week and am hoping that I can live longer than four years!

I am a new widow and my children still need me and I them. I did quit smoking completely six months ago. I should have never begun it looks like, but I can't undo what's done. I use oxygen at night and sometimes during my day as well. Please people, do not ever smoke!


My mum was diagnosed some 15 years ago, so four years is certainly nonsense if all the anecdotes here are anything to go by!


My husband was first diagnosed 24 years ago. Inhaled medications have helped, but for the last 2 years he's on oxygen (at first just at night; now 24/7). He stopped working last year. I figure we've been living on borrowed time for a long time.

The past six months or less have been pretty bad. His O2 levels are tanking and the coughing... He's exhausted and it's so hard to watch. This article with the four-year prognosis is garbage. A good pulmonologist and following instructions will keep you going a whole lot longer than that. The trouble with people is they wait too long to go to the doctor.


My doctor is a jerk. He told me two years ago I had emphysema but did not follow up. I have just been told I am at stage 3 and my prognosis is three years max, after not smoking for a year. He also took two years to find my wife's cancer.


My father has been living with emphysema for 14 years! He only just started using full-time oxygen last year. However, now his bad days seem to out number his good. We are lucky to have had him this long. He quit smoking two years before diagnosis. He then smoked for a couple of years after when the stress of my daughter's cancer got to him, because smoking helped.

So, now I wonder just how long it is before he goes. He doesn't get up much and can't walk very far without being "winded". He also has to sit to shave, etc. Also sometimes he feels like his throat is closing. Any info would be helpful.


Is the life expectancy for someone with subcutaneous emphysema the same as for someone with regular emphysema? I've been doing some volunteering at a local nursing home, and one elderly man I have befriended has this condition.

He gets swollen patches on his neck and chest, and when the nurse touches them, they crackle. It's a scary sound. She says that he has trapped gas in pockets under his skin.

I hate to think that he may die soon, but I don't know how long they expect him to live. He just found out he had it a few months ago. Can I expect another four years with him, or is subcutaneous emphysema more severe?


@Oceana – That is amazing! My grandmother had only mild emphysema, and she died after three years. Yours must have been quite the fighter!

Not long after my grandmother passed, my great-uncle found out he had severe emphysema. They both were young adults during a time when no one believed that smoking was bad for you, so they smoked for many years.

My great-uncle only lived for a year. He did a lot to mend past relationships and help people out during that year, though. I think that the knowledge that he would soon pass prompted him to do what he should have been doing all along.


I had no idea that four years was the life expectancy for an emphysema patient! My grandmother lived for seven years after her diagnosis, and we were beginning to think that she might actually beat the disease!

She fought hard, and she had a determined spirit. There is really nothing you can do when you lose the ability to breathe normally, though. Willpower doesn't affect lung capacity in the final stages.


I think that my grandfather was the exception to the rule of typical life expectancy with emphysema. He lived to be eighty-five, and he had smoked for over twenty years.

He did quit smoking decades before diagnosis, though. I was kind of surprised to hear that he developed emphysema so late in life. I would have thought he would have gotten it right after he stopped smoking instead.

His last few years were hard on both him and my mother, who took care of him until he had to be committed to a nursing home. He needed someone to watch him around the clock, and my mother had to work and take care of us children. He died at that nursing home, struggling for his last breath.

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