Emphysema Symptoms & Stages

Updated March 23, 2017

Emphysema is a lung disease affecting the air sac walls (alveoli). The cause of emphysema in most cases is through cigarette smoking. The tiny air sacs get damaged by chemicals released by the lungs as a reaction to cigarette smoke and pollutants. As a result the sacs are unable to fill with air. The physical effects of the damaged air sacs affect exhalation, which takes twice as long as inhalation due to the difficulty in expelling air from the lungs. The oxygen supply to the body is directly affected because of the decrease in lung function. Emphysema sufferers have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).


Shortness of breath (SOB) is noted in emphysema patients due to the fact they can't take enough air into their lungs to supply their body. SOB is especially noticed upon exercising, in which it is difficult for emphysema sufferers to participate.


Emphysema sufferers wheeze when breathing due to restricted lung capacity. A chronic cough is usually present with or without producing sputum. Emphysema may cause the victim to develop a barrel chest.


Significant weight loss without intention may be observed in emphysema sufferers coupled with anxiety and fatigue.


Oedema (swelling) may occur in the feet, ankles and legs due to the inability to rid the body of excess fluids. Therefore, fluids build up during the day. The sufferer may get up to go to the bathroom several times at night to urinate as the body attempts to eliminate those fluids easier while the sufferer is lying down.

Oxygen Therapy

Oxygen therapy may benefit those with emphysema. If not during the day, low-flow continuous oxygen at night may help to aid in breathing. Portable oxygen bottles are available for moderate to severe emphysema sufferers to provide enough oxygen to supply and support their bodily functions.


Emphysema has many stages depending on how heavy a smoker the sufferer was. Smoking cessation is recommended to receive the full benefit from therapy. If the sufferer quits smoking, progression of the disease will cease and be easier to manage with inhalers or bronchodilators. If smoking is continued, emphysema will gradually progress and worsen until even mild exercise is impossible and normal daily functions cease due to fatigue and weakness. Oxygen will be required at all times of the day and night.


Severe cases of emphysema may require a lung transplant. Less severe emphysema sufferers may have the option to have lung reduction surgery to remove the diseased tissue from the lungs.

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About the Author

Victoria Ries is a freelance writer whose work has been published in various print magazines, including "Guideposts," "BackHome," New Homesteading" and "Mother Earth News." Ries enjoys working on diverse topics such as travel, animal rescue, health and home business. Ries is currently working on her B.A. in psychology.