What Are Early Signs of Emphysema?
June 05, 2023

What Are Early Signs of Emphysema?

Emphysema can cause chest tightness, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that’s caused by damage to the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. This damage makes it hard for the lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, which can lead to shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing.

Early detection and lifestyle changes are key to a positive outcome. Here’s what to look for in the early stages.

Early signs of emphysema

In the very early stages of emphysema, you may not have any noticeable symptoms. As the disease progresses, some early signs may include:

  • shortness of breath during physical activity
  • mild cough, especially in the morning
  • mild wheezing
  • mild fatigue
  • mild chest tightness
  • mild weight loss

What are the most predictable symptoms of emphysema?

The most predictable symptoms of emphysema are chronic coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. These symptoms are caused by damage to the air sacs in the lungs, which makes it hard for the lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide efficiently.

What does emphysema feel like?

Many people describe emphysema as feeling like they can’t catch their breath or as if they’re suffocating.

Wheezing may feel like a rattling or high-pitched whistling when you breathe. Wheezing may also be accompanied by shortness of breath, coughing, and chest tightness.

Chest tightness can feel like a sensation of pressure or squeezing in the chest area. It may feel like someone is sitting on your chest or like a tight band is wrapped around it.

What to do if you think you have emphysema

Research from 2019Trusted Source shows that emphysema is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. If you think you may have emphysema, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible. The earlier it’s diagnosed, the better the chances of slowing its progression.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or a pulmonologist (lung specialist): Be prepared to discuss your medical history, including any history of smoking, as well as your symptoms.
  • Quit smoking: If you smoke, quitting is the most important thing you can do to slow the progression of emphysema. About 80%–90%Trusted Source of people with COPD are cigarette smokers.
  • Follow a healthy diet: Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and good fats can help reduce inflammation in your body.
  • Manage stress: Stress can worsen your symptoms and trigger flare-ups. Practice stress-management techniques, such as deep breathing or yoga, to reduce stress levels.

What is the best way to diagnose emphysema?

Your doctor will first ask you questions about your medical history, including any history of smoking or exposure to lung irritants, as well as any symptoms you may be experiencing.

During a physical exam, your doctor will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope and may look for signs of emphysema, such as pursed-lip breathing.

Your doctor will likely order some diagnostic tests, such as:

  • Pulmonary function test: This test measures how well your lungs are functioning by measuring the amount of air you can breathe in and out and how quickly you can exhale.
  • Imaging tests: Chest X-rays or CT scans can help your doctor see the extent of the damage to your lungs and rule out other conditions.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests may be used to check for genetic factors that can contribute to emphysema or rule out other conditions.
  • Bronchoscopy: In some cases, a bronchoscopy may be performed to examine the airways.

Stages of emphysema

Emphysema is a progressive disease, meaning it tends to get worse over time. The disease is often classified into four stages based on the severity of the symptoms and the extent of lung damage:

  • Stage 1 — Mild: You may experience shortness of breath during physical activity, but your lung function is still relatively standard. You may not even realize you have the disease at this stage.
  • Stage 2 — Moderate: You may experience increased shortness of breath and severe coughing with mucus production. Lung damage is more noticeable on imaging tests.
  • Stage 3 — Severe: Breathing and lung function continue to worsen, causing basic tasks and chores to become unmanageable. You may require oxygen therapy.
  • Stage 4 — Very severe: In this stage, you have very limited physical activity and may be confined to a wheelchair or bed. You may require oxygen therapy for most of the day since the risk of developing heart or lung failure is very high.

Can you cure emphysema?

Currently, there’s no cure for emphysema. However, treatments are available to help manage your symptoms, slow the progression of the condition, and improve your quality of life. Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and staying physically active can help slow the progression of the disease as well.

Treatment options for emphysema

The treatment goals for emphysema are to improve lung function, reduce symptoms such as shortness of breath and coughing, and prevent complications such as respiratory infections and pulmonary hypertension.

The treatment options for each stage vary and may include a combination of medications, lifestyle changes, and in some cases, surgery.

Here are treatment options by stage:

  • Stage 1: The focus is on lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and staying physically active. Medications like bronchodilators and corticosteroids can help manage symptoms.
  • Stage 2: Along with lifestyle changes and medications, pulmonary rehabilitation (a program of exercise, education, and breathing techniques) may be recommended. Supplemental oxygen therapy may also be necessary to improve oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Stage 3: Supplemental oxygen therapy is often necessary, and surgical options such as lung volume reduction surgery (removing damaged lung tissue) may be considered.
  • Stage 4: In this stage, the focus is on relieving symptoms and improving quality of life. A lung transplant may be necessary. Palliative care may also be recommended.

Bottom line

Emphysema is a serious form of COPD caused by damage to the air sacs in the lungs.

If you’re experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath or a persistent cough, it’s important to see your doctor for an evaluation and to discuss treatment options. Early detection and treatment can slow its progression and improve your quality of life.

Written By:  Ashley Marcin

Edited By:Claire Brocato

Medically Reviewed By: Adithya Cattamanchi, MD

Copy Edited By: Sara Giusti