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Early Symptoms of Emphysema

Early Symptoms of Emphysema

If you have ever read the warning label on a box of cigarettes, or seen any of the lurid commercials produced by the American Lung Association, you may be wondering about the early symptoms of emphysema, but it is useful to understand emphysema and its causes before learning the symptoms of the disease.

What Is Emphysema?

Emphysema occurs when the alveoli, or the air sacs in the lungs that act as the gas-blood barrier through which oxygen enters the bloodstream and carbon dioxide is removed from the bloodstream, are damaged. Emphysema is most often caused by smoking, but two-three percent of emphysema cases are caused by a genetic deficiency of a protein that supports the elastic structures of the alveoli. Air pollution and exposure to environmental or occupational toxins can also contribute to emphysema. [“COPD Statistics.” American Lung Association]

COPD and Emphysema

COPD is an acronym for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  COPD refers to both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.  The two conditions often co-exist, so many of the statistics that are often repeated for emphysema are actually statistics for COPD.  According to the America Lung Association, COPD claims the lives of more than 125,000 Americans annually, making it the third leading cause of death in the country.  [COPD Statistics.” American Lung Association]  The Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 11,000 deaths are due to emphysema. [“FASTSTATS – Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]

Early Symptoms of Emphysema?

The earliest symptoms of emphysema are usually a productive cough or respiratory infection. A feeling of breathlessness is often the next symptom to present, and it often shows up a decade after the productive cough. Other common symptoms include a feeling of tightness across the chest, the inability to exert yourself physically, anorexia and weight loss, and chronic fatigue. Symptoms are usually mild at first, but gradually worsen. Many people who suffer from emphysema also have chronic bronchitis. There is no cure for emphysema, but the symptoms can be treated and the progress of the disease slowed.

When to See the Doctor

If you are experiencing a productive cough, anorexia and weight loss, chronic fatigue, the inability to perform moderate exercise without the loss of breath, the inability to bend over without the loss of breath, labored breath in cold air, trouble breathing when you have a cold, or grey or blue fingertips or lips and you suspect you may be at risk for emphysema, you should see a doctor immediately.



“Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – PubMed Health.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2012. <>

“COPD Statistics.” American Lung Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2012. <>.

“FASTSTATS – Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2012.

“Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Symptoms.” N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2012.

What Is Emphysema?

Mayo Clinic
Emphysema: Definition

Glossary of Terms

Alveoli: the final branchings of the respiratory tree and act as the primary gas exchange units of the lung.
John Hopkins School of Medicine

Anorexia: Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that makes people lose more weight than is considered healthy for their age and height.
National Institute of Health

Chronic bronchitis: a long-term inflammation of the bronchi, which results in increased production of mucus, as well as other changes.
Ohio State Wexler Medical Center

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: is a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. “Progressive” means the disease gets worse over time.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Expert Opinion

Quote: “People with emphysema may develop a “barrel chest,” where the distance from the chest to the back, which is normally less than the distance side to side, becomes more pronounced. This is a direct result of air becoming trapped behind obstructed airways.”


Quote Archives: “The symptoms of emphysema usually begin in middle or advanced life, but marked emphysema may occur in youth and childhood. The disease always lasts for years, unless some special intercurrent disease arises.”

Source:Adolf von Strümpell; Textbook of Medicine for Students and Practitioners;

New York, Appleton 188


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