Emphysema. Take Control & Breathe Easier with our Treatment Options

Updated: 9/29/23

If you have emphysema, then you know how it can affect your daily life. You may have difficulty breathing, fatigue, and even an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke. While there is no cure for this serious lung condition, the good news is that there are treatment options to help you live better with emphysema and take control of your life again. From lifestyle changes to medications and surgical interventions, here’s how we can help ease some of the effects associated with emphysema so that you can breathe easier.

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a chronic lung disease characterized by damage to the air sacs in the lungs, known as alveoli. When these structures break down, the lungs lose their natural elasticity, which makes exhaling difficult. As a result, emphysema causes shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing.

It is one of the conditions that primarily make up chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

Bronchitis vs. Emphysema

Most people who have emphysema also have chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to the lungs. This inflammation can lead to a persistent cough.

Are Emphysema and COPD the Same Thing?

Emphysema is a type of COPD that damages the air sacs in the lungs, making it difficult for oxygen to be exchanged with carbon dioxide. COPD, on the other hand, is an umbrella term that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and other lung diseases. It is characterized by a gradual worsening of breathing problems, and is often caused by smoking or exposure to air pollutants.

One key difference between the two conditions is that emphysema primarily affects the air sacs, while COPD affects both the air sacs and the bronchial tubes. This means that people with COPD may experience symptoms such as coughing and mucus production, as well as difficulty breathing. Emphysema, on the other hand, is usually characterized by shortness of breath and wheezing.

What Are the Stages of Emphysema?

Similar to cancer, COPD is categorized by stage. Stage one patients are “at risk” or in a “mild” stage. In this stage there is at least 80 percent lung capacity. Being out of breath and feeling generally out of shape are common states in this stage, though anyone at risk should see a doctor for a spirometry test or screening.

Every stage after stage one of emphysema is an advanced emphysema stage. The term “advanced” implies that the emphysema condition has worsened.

Emphysema Stage 1

The first stage is mild emphysema, where your lungs have lost up to 20% of their normal function. Mild emphysema doesn’t usually have any noticeable symptoms, and patients can go on with their daily lives without any trouble.

Emphysema Stage 2

Stage two refers to conditions where the lung capacity of the individual falls between 50 and 80 percent. In this stage, you may notice a steady decline in your lung function, which may cause shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. You may also be prone to infections, especially respiratory infections.

Emphysema Stage 3

Stage three COPD is the “severe” stage, and occurs when the lung capacity falls to between 30 and 50 percent. There is severe restriction on the patients’ ability to be active thanks to increased fatigue. In this stage, you will experience significant breathing difficulties, and even simple tasks such as climbing stairs or walking short distances can be challenging. Severe emphysema can also cause fatigue, weight loss, and chest pain.

Emphysema Stage 4

The final stage is stage four. This is the ‘very severe’ or ‘end stage’. This is by lung capacity falling below 30 percent and very limited tolerance of activity and trouble breathing. In this stage, your lung function has declined by more than 70%, and you may need oxygen therapy to help you breathe. End-stage emphysema can severely limit your ability to carry out even the most simple tasks, and you may need help with basic activities such as bathing and dressing.

Though called ‘end stage’ it does not necessarily mean that death is imminent — many people who stick to a healthy diet and lifestyle and follow medical advice live well, with a good quality of life.

Can Emphysema Get Better?

Emphysema’s symptoms can make it challenging to live a normal life, but people with emphysema can take steps to manage their condition and feel better. While there is no cure for emphysema, the symptoms can be managed and even improved through treatments like pulmonary rehabilitation and lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking. By taking control of your lifestyle and working closely with your healthcare team, you can achieve quality of life improvements that will let you enjoy your day to day activities without being too difficult.

Emphysema Symptoms

If you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor right away. Early detection and treatment can help you manage the condition and improve your quality of life. Living with emphysema can be challenging, but with proper care and attention, you can learn to manage the symptoms and enjoy a fulfilling life.

Breathing Difficulties

There are a wide range of symptoms relating to the breathing system in patients with emphysema. For example, frequent lung infections, wheezing, phlegm, coughing, chest pain and the inability to breathe freely are all rather common. 


Due to lowered lung capacity, blood oxygen levels may be low, which can result in cyanosis, or blue lips and skin. If this is the first time you are experiencing this, then speak to your doctor. If it comes on all of a sudden, seek medical attention immediately as this can be a sign of a severe condition.

Mental Symptoms

Those dealing with emphysema often experience fatigue in addition to sleep problems. Anxiety and depression can also be triggered while dealing with a condition like emphysema. Loss of appetite can also occur with emphysema and COPD, which can lead to weight loss.


End stage emphysema encompasses the other symptoms of lesser stages, but is particularly marked mostly by dyspnea. Dyspnea is shortness of breath even when one is at rest.

Hyperinflated Lung Symptoms

Hyperinflated lungs are caused by the respiration system being blocked, stopping air that has been taken in from being released. This is common in patients who have COPD.

Fatigue and Difficulty Completing Everyday Activities

People who have emphysema often feel exhausted and have trouble completing everyday activities that require physical exertion. Fatigue is due to the reduction oxygen supply to the body tissues since the oxygen-carrying capacity of the lungs decreases.

Symptoms of Emphysema

Causes of Emphysema

Smoking Tobacco

Smoking remains the leading cause of emphysema. The toxic chemicals in cigarettes and other tobacco products cause inflammation of the air sacs, leading to the breakdown of lung tissue. Prolonged exposure to smoke leads to the destruction of the lungs’ elasticity, making breathing difficult.

The best way to prevent emphysema is to avoid smoking and exposure to cigarette smoke. If you smoke, quitting is the most effective way to reduce your risk of developing the illness. You should also avoid exposure to air pollutants and make sure to wear protective equipment if you work in a high-risk environment.

Air Pollution

Exposure to air pollution can also lead to the development of emphysema. This includes exposure to fumes from traffic, industrial fumes, and other sources of pollution. Prolonged exposure to such pollution causes irritation of the lungs, which leads to the development of emphysema.

Occupational Exposure

Those who work in environments that expose them to toxic substances like silica or coal dust can develop emphysema. This is particularly common in industrial sectors such as mining or construction.

Lifestyle and Nutrition

Certain lifestyle factors and poor nutrition can also increase your risk of developing emphysema. Lack of physical activity can lead to weight gain, which puts more stress on your lungs and heart. Eating a diet high in saturated fats, processed foods, and sugar can also lead to chronic inflammation, which can damage the lungs over time. To reduce your risk of emphysema, it’s important to adopt a healthy lifestyle and eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.


Emphysema can also be caused by genetic factors. There are variations in certain genes that can make some people more susceptible to lung damage and inflammation. If you have a family history of emphysema, you may be at higher risk of developing the disease. Speak to your doctor about getting a genetic test to determine if you have any of these variations.

Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency

This is a genetic condition that cause emphysema in people who have never been a smoker or exposure to pollutants. It occurs when there is a deficiency of a protein,  alpha-1 antitrypsin, which helps to protect the lungs from damage. If you have this deficiency, you may need to receive a replacement therapy to help prevent emphysema.

Can Emphysema Lead to Lung Cancer?

Emphysema is a chronic lung disease that results in the damage of your lung’s air sacs, leading to breathing difficulties. It is often with smoking, but can also arise from prolonged exposure to smoke, air pollution, and other harmful particles in the air. While emphysema itself does not cause lung cancer, research shows that having this chronic lung condition can increase your risk of developing the disease.

Diagnosis of Emphysema

Emphysema is usually receives a diagnosis through a series of tests and exams that evaluate the severity of the conditions. The doctor can perform a physical exam by evaluating the lungs for any signs of crackling or wheezing sounds, checking breathing rate, and using a device to measure the amount of air inhaled and exhaled termed spirometry. Other tests such as arterial blood gas (ABG) are useful in evaluating oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in blood. A CT or MRI can show a detailed picture of the lungs, which can reveal the degree of damage to their tissues. Performing one of these tests, the doctors can then determine the severity of the disease and the treatment methods that will be most effective.

However, an emphysema condition detects as early as possible can receive treatment to ensure a longer and better quality life. It is also important to note that it is a heritable disease. If emphysema or COPD is present in the family history, any symptom relating to it should be taken seriously and the necessary laboratory tests should be carried out.

Can You Die from Emphysema?

Over 251 million cases of COPD reported globally in 2016, and in 2015 there are over 3.17 million deaths. This means that it accounted for 5 percent of all deaths globally that year. Over 90 percent of those COPD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.

One of the biggest risks that come with emphysema is the potential for respiratory failure. When the lungs are unable to function properly, they can’t provide the body with the oxygen it needs. This can lead to hypoxia, a condition where the body’s tissues and organs don’t receive enough oxygen. If left untreated, hypoxia can be fatal. In severe cases of emphysema, this can lead to respiratory failure and death.

Another potential risk associated with emphysema is increased susceptibility to infections. As the lungs become damaged, they may not be able to effectively clear out bacteria or viruses. This can lead to infections such as pneumonia, which can be particularly dangerous for those with emphysema. In some cases, infections can lead to sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the body’s immune system responds excessively to an infection.

Other Emphysema Complications

In addition to these risks, there is also increases risk of complications with surgery for those with emphysema. Since the lungs are less than ideal, surgery can put additional strain on them. This can lead to complications such as pneumonia, blood clots, and respiratory failure. For this reason, people with emphysema may need to take special precautions before undergoing surgery.

While it is widespread and can be deadly without treatment, those in highly developed countries who have access to treatments and are willing to make the required lifestyle and medical changes can manage the condition.

Emphysema Treatments

Emphysema cannot reverse, but many medical procedures have developed to treat COPD. These medical procedures help to support the necessary lifestyle changes and symptom management that the patients themselves must undertake. No amount of medical intervention can help treat emphysema and COPD if the patient does not follow medical advice.

Medical Treatments for Emphysema

Much of the treatment of emphysema is symptom management and prevention of other diseases and infections that could further damage the respiratory system.


There are several medications available for the treatment of emphysema that can help relieve symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. These include bronchodilators, steroids, and antibiotics. Bronchodilators work by relaxing the airways, allowing for easier breathing. Steroids reduce inflammation in the airways, and antibiotics can treat or prevent respiratory infections. Be sure to talk to your doctor about which medications would be the right fit for your condition.

Oxygen Therapy

For those who have severe emphysema, oxygen therapy can be a helpful treatment option. It involves using an oxygen machine to deliver supplemental oxygen to the body. It can improve breathing, reduce fatigue, and enhance physical endurance. Oxygen therapy is usually for patients with low blood oxygen saturation levels, even during rest.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is a structured program that involves education, exercise training, breathing techniques, and lifestyle modifications to help improve lung function and overall well-being. This program is for individuals with moderate to severe emphysema and improve lung function, reduce exacerbation of symptoms, and enhance quality of life.


In extreme cases, when all other treatment options fail, surgery may be recommended. Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) and lung transplant are two surgery options for patients with severe emphysema. LVRS involves removing the damaged lung tissue, allowing for better gas exchange in the remaining healthy lung tissue, while lung transplant involves replacing the failing lung with a healthy one.

Lifestyle Modifications

Along with medical treatments and therapies, making positive lifestyle changes can help manage emphysema’s symptoms. These include quitting smoking, avoiding respiratory irritants, exercising regularly (if permitted by your doctor), eating a healthy diet, and staying up to date on vaccines. A healthy lifestyle can help boost immunity and reduce the risk of infections, which can exacerbate emphysema symptoms.

Alternative Therapies

Several alternative therapies have suggested to improve breathing and reduce symptoms of emphysema. These include acupuncture, herbal remedies, and breathing exercises, such as yoga and Tai Chi. While some people find relief from these therapies, there is little scientific evidence to support their effectiveness.

Natural Remedies for Emphysema

Some natural remedies for symptom support are available and can provide some benefit to patients with COPD.

Vitamin D

Research has shown that people with emphysema tend to have lower levels of vitamin D in their blood than healthy individuals. Vitamin D plays a crucial role in lung health by regulating immune function, reducing inflammation, and protecting against respiratory infections. Supplementing with vitamin D can significantly improve lung function and quality of life in people with emphysema.


Magnesium has been found to have a bronchodilating effect. To increase your intake of magnesium, kale, avocado, banana and nuts are all good food sources. Additionally, magnesium supplements are available.


Mullein leaves has shown to have expectorant properties, which can help to clear mucus from the lungs and airways. This can help to reduce coughing and improve overall breathing. Mullein consumed in tea form or taken as a supplement.


Vitamins A, C, and E — these vitamins are important antioxidants that help the body break down food and release the needed carbon dioxide to the body’s exterior. Vegetables and fruits are good sources of these vitamins. If a dietary source is not enough, a supplement is a viable option.


Ginseng has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries as a natural remedy for a variety of health issues, including respiratory conditions. It may help to reduce inflammation in the airways and improve lung function. While ginseng can be consumed in tea form, it’s also available in supplement form. Panax ginseng was studied in 2014 and appeared to inhibit processes related to COPD pathogenesis and can be used in COPD treatment.

Licorice Root

Licorice root has been used for centuries in traditional medicine for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It can help to reduce inflammation in the airways, making it easier to breathe. Licorice root can be consumed in tea form or as a supplement.


Zinc is another essential mineral that can help improve lung function and reduce inflammation in people with emphysema. It plays a critical role in immune function and can help protect against respiratory infections, which can be especially dangerous for people with emphysema. Supplementing with zinc can also help reduce inflammation in the lungs and improve overall respiratory health.

The Bottom Line

Emphysema is a disease which is part of the umbrella term COPD, or ‘chronic obstructive pulmonary disease’. It affects the respiratory system and results in difficulty breathing, excess phlegm and coughing. There are several possible causes of emphysema, but the main cause is inhalation of toxic gasses like cigarette and tobacco smoke. The use of vitamin and mineral supplements to support overall health can make a big difference. There is no reversal of emphysema, but the symptoms are manageable. Natural remedies can help alleviate its symptoms and improve lung function. Herbal remedies provide a safe and effective way to treat emphysema and enhance lung health. Licorice root, ginseng, and mullein are just some of the herbs that can help alleviate the symptoms of emphysema. However, it’s always best to consult with your healthcare provider before using any herbal remedies to make sure they’re safe for you.

In conclusion, there are several treatments available for emphysema that can help manage symptoms and improve your quality of life. Lifestyle changes, medications, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, and surgery are some of the most effective treatments for emphysema. If you have emphysema, it is important to work with your doctor to create a personalized treatment plan that meets your individual needs. With the right care, you can maintain your lung function, reduce symptoms, and live a full and active life.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease

Author: Ryan Quigley
Graduate of Longwood University in Virginia. Part-time sports journalist covering the Vegas Golden Knights.