Emphysema: Symptoms and Causes


Emphysema is a condition known as a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The lungs of the human body are composed of tubes and air sacs known as alveoli. It is through the alveoli that oxygen diffuses into the blood. In emphysema, the walls of the alveoli are damaged or weakened, and the surface area-to-volume ratio decreases, resulting in reduced oxygen concentration in the blood. It also means that harmful products of the body like carbon dioxide cannot diffuse out of the blood efficiently, and do not leave the body when exhaling.

Emphysema is also usually accompanied by chronic bronchitis, which is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes that carry air to the lungs, leading to a persistent cough.

If you have trouble breathing or a regular cough, we suggest you consult a pulmonologist to rule out any major respiratory disorders. We recommend a Top Chest specialist in Karachi.


Despite having emphysema, you may at first not have any symptoms, or they might be mild. The disease progresses slowly, but as it worsens, the symptoms also get worse. The main result you will notice is shortness of breath that gets more pronounced as time goes on. Other symptoms include:

  • A chronic cough
  • Increased mucus production
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing, or producing a squeaky sound when breathing

As time and the disease progress, more severe and diverse symptom will arise, such as:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Fatigue or feelings of lethargy
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss
  • Frequent lung infections
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Blue-coloration of the fingernail beds, due to reduced oxygen in the blood


Most commonly, emphysema is usually caused by long term exposure of the respiratory system to harmful irritants. The irritants include tobacco and other kinds of inhaled smoke – both secondhand and direct – air pollution, chemical fumes and dust particles in the air in the workplace or other frequently visited areas, and smoke produced by burning biomass fuels.

Another cause of emphysema is a genetic condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. The emphysema brought about by this condition is a lot rarer than that which is caused by irritants.

Risk Factors

Apart from smoking and inhaling smoke and air pollutants, there are other factors that increase the risk of developing emphysema. These include:

  • Age: As you get older, the walls of the alveoli weaken, and the elasticity decreases as well. This in conjunction with the gradual damage caused by the emphysema means that symptoms become more apparent as one gets older. This is why most people begin to experience severe symptoms around the age of 40.
  • Genetics: As we’ve said before, a genetic condition having to do with alpha-1-antitrypsin is responsible for a type of emphysema. This condition is heritable, so a history of the condition in one’s family indicates a higher potential of developing the disease in oneself.
  • History of respiratory illness: Studies have shown that a history of childhood infections and diseases of the respiratory system correlates with a higher chance of developing the disease. Other present respiratory conditions such as asthma have also been shown to increase the likelihood of having emphysema.

Due to the slow progression and lack of easily identifiable symptoms of emphysema, one may not consider the potential of having the disease, and it can go unnoticed. However, testing by a specialist can help diagnose it. If you feel a progression of any of the mild symptoms we have listed, we recommend visiting a physician to rule out a dangerous pulmonary disease such as this one. We recommend consulting one of the Best Chest specialist in Karachi.