What Is the Connection between Emphysema and Pneumonia?

Nicole Long

Emphysema and pneumonia are both conditions of the lungs. Both exhibit similar symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Those with emphysema may be at a greater risk of developing pneumonia, especially the elderly.

Smoking is a major risk factor for emphysema.
Smoking is a major risk factor for emphysema.

The connection between the two is the weakened immune system caused by emphysema. When that occurs, a patient becomes more susceptible to other diseases of the lungs, such as pneumonia. The bacteria, virus, and fungi typically responsible for pneumonia can easily invade and lead to a dangerous situation if not monitored and treated properly.

Elderly patients with emphysema may be at an increase risk of developing pneumonia.
Elderly patients with emphysema may be at an increase risk of developing pneumonia.

Several possible causes of emphysema exist, but smoking is the primary cause. The irritants inhaled by smoking damages the lining of the lung, causes inflammation of the cells and tissues of the lung, and causes swelling in the bronchioles. Over time, emphysema continues to progress, often leading to fatal complications. What may start out as shortness of breath when walking or during some other activity will eventually progress to shortness of breath when sitting or resting. Wheezing and a light cough often accompany shortness of breath in emphysema patients.

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

As emphysema progresses, the lungs become more susceptible to infection and conditions such as pneumonia. Patients with emphysema and pneumonia may begin to notice the production of green or yellow sputum, muscle aches, and fever. In addition, breathing may become more difficult and a rapid heart beat may be noticeable.

Pneumonia causes the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs, to become inflamed and filled with fluid.
Pneumonia causes the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs, to become inflamed and filled with fluid.

Patients with emphysema and pneumonia need specific treatment to manage the difficulties associated with this deadly combination. Antibiotics will often be prescribed to help fight the infection and reduce the strain on the lungs. Those with difficulty breathing may also be required to use oxygen to assist them. Severe cases, or infections occurring during advanced stages of emphysema, may require hospitalization.

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

Recovery for patients diagnosed with emphysema and pneumonia will depend on the severity of the disease. Some patients will benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation programs focused on teaching breathing techniques and medication management. These programs will also focus on how to avoid further infections and limit their chances of developing pneumonia in the future. Low-level exercise may also be recommended to help keep the patient active. Surgery to remove a portion of lung or place stents in the airways may be recommended in cases where physicians feel the benefits will outweigh the risks, but it is not common.

The irritants that are inhaled when smoking cigarettes damage the lining of the lungs.
The irritants that are inhaled when smoking cigarettes damage the lining of the lungs.

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Discussion Comments

Dramacat5

People with emphysema wheeze and cough a lot. They have an increased risk of getting pneumonia, too. My mother suffers from emphysema as a result of prolonged smoking. She has often been hospitalized with pneumonia. Doctors have advised her on numerous occasions to stop smoking. Although the emphysema can't be reversed, the frequency of pneumonia could be affected. Smoking damages the lungs irreparably.

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