Early symptoms of emphysema


The early symptoms of emphysema are few, if any at all, due to the fact this condition advances very gradually, sometimes over a period as long as 20 years. The main sign of emphysema is shortness of breath, and even that can be easily ignored by avoiding the activities that trigger it, usually sports. It’s only when shortness of breath disrupts everyday tasks like housework, climbing stairs or walking short distances, or more worrisome, when it affects people when they are resting or sleeping, that emphysema truly comes to the fore. There may be other symptoms as well, including:

·         Wheezing.

·         Coughing.

·         Phlegm.

·         Chest tightness.

·         Distended chest.

·         Chronic fatigue.

·         Sleeping problems.

·         Headaches in the morning.

·         Loss of weight.

·         Ankle swelling.

·         Concentration problems.  

Emphysema is part of a group of respiratory diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, or COPD. Emphysema weakens and ruptures air sacs in the lungs known as alveoli. The alveoli are grape-like clusters of millions of air sacs that make the lungs elastic and help them to absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide. As they progressively and irreversibly become damaged the surface of the lungs is reduced, trapping old air in and leaving little room for fresh air, thus cutting oxygen supply to the bloodstream. Smoking cigarettes –either tobacco or cannabis- is the major cause of emphysema, although people who smoke cigars and pipes are also at risk. Other risk factors include.

·         Age*.

·         Secondhand smoke exposure+.

·         Work-related fume and dust exposure+.

·         Indoor and outdoor pollution exposure+.

* Early symptoms of emphysema usually appear between the 40 and 60 years of aged, though the damage has been accumulating since much earlier.

+Could cause emphysema in non-smokers.

Even though smoking is the single largest indicator of emphysema, a doctor will ask multiple questions in order to make a diagnosis, some of which may not be related to smoking. Your doctor may ask you:

·         When you started smoking and how many cigarettes you smoke a day.

·         If you’re exposed to secondhand smoke.

·         If you are exposed to airborne irritants where you live or work.

·         If you live in an area with considerable air pollution.

·         If you have a family history of ATT deficiency, early onset of emphysema, or non-smokers diagnosed with emphysema.

·         If you have respiratory allergies, recurrent colds, or persistent cough.

In addition to quizzing you on your smoking habits and family and personal medical history, your doctor may proceed to performing a physical examination with the goal of assessing:

·         The size and shape of the chest, and how it moves when breathing.

·         Whether there is shortness of breath when performing simple activities.

·         Whether there is a bluish tint in the skin, lips and fingernails indicative of reduced blood oxygen levels.

·         Whether there is ankle swelling due to fluid accumulation.

 The doctor may also listen to heart and lungs; the latter to check for wheezing or loss of normal breathing sounds. He may also check ears, nose and throat to find reasons for coughing. However, since such an examination may produce normal results in people who are in the earliest phases of emphysema, the doctor may move on to more elaborate tests, including:

·         X-rays.

·         CT scans.

·         Electrocardiogram.

·         Lung function tests.

·         Arterial blood gases.

Chest X-rays can show emphysema-related changes like lung enlargement, scarring, and holes known as bullae. CT scans are, however, more efficient at finding the earliest signs of emphysema. Lung function tests may include blowing into a spirometer. Detecting emphysema as early as possible is instrumental because, though the condition has no cure and the damage done so far can’t be reversed, its progression may be arrested and further complications avoided. Untreated emphysema can potentially lead to the aforementioned bullae (which can take up as much as half the lung), which can in turn increase the risk of pneumothorax (or collapsed lung; rare but deadly). Heart problems can also occur.

Treatment for emphysema ranges from drugs to therapy and surgery, depending on how severe the symptoms are.




·         Bronchodilators

·         Inhaled steroids

·         antibiotics

·         Pulmonary rehab

·         Nutrition therapy

·         Supplemental oxygen

·         Lung volume reduction surgery

·         Lung transplant


As is almost always the case with medical conditions, prevention is the best course of action, and emphysema can be easily prevented by not smoking, or failing that, by quitting smoking. Of course that is easier said than done, which is why the American Lung Association can help you do it.