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What is Emphysema?

With emphysema, the smallest airways and the air sacs themselves are damaged and inflamed. Associated with this inflammation is swelling which narrows the airways making the flow of air difficult. There is a loss of elasticity of the lung tissue which normally holds the airways open. This loss of elasticity contributes to the narrowing of the airways.

Destruction of the air sacs makes the lungs less efficient in moving oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the blood.

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COPD: Stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and refers to emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Individuals with COPD may also exhibit some degree of asthma.
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Did you know...
  • Emphysema is a serious disease.
  • When the bronchi are damaged by cigarette smoke, the walls of the tiny air spaces and blood vessels may be destroyed.
  • As the walls of the air spaces are damaged, the whole lung may get larger.
  • A patient with emphysema may not be able to walk or climb stairs without an oxygen tank.
  • As the disease gets worse, the heart must work harder to pump blood. The heart may get larger because of the strain. Finally, it will give out.
  • Modern medicine can usually slow down the disease.

In 80-90% of cases, emphysema is caused by smoking. Occupational exposure to dusts and some fumes is the other major risk factor. Exposure to second-hand smoke and indoor air pollution may play a role as well.

Not smoking is the best way to prevent emphysema. Quiting for those diagnosed can slow the progression of the disease.

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For more information about your lungs:
read our national site's information on emphysema
call the Lung Association's Information Line at 1-800-972-2636


Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are also called COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

If you're looking for information about emphysema, you should also read our fact sheets on:

  chronic bronchitis

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Help for people with COPD.

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Smoking & Tobacco

Smoking and tobacco.
For facts, figures & other reasons to never smoke, visit our online resource centre.

When you can't BREATHE, nothing else MATTERS.
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