Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Long-term disease where the walls of the lung's air sacs gradually break down


Tiny air sacs that make up the lungs expand and relax as you breath in and then out. Emphysema is a long-term disease where the walls between these air sacs are gradually destroyed. It can affect those exposed to harmful fumes, smoke, or dust. Symptom include shortness of breath, a constant phlegmy cough, wheezing and frequent chest infections.

Need to know

  • Symptoms of emphysema icon plus

    Those suffering from emphysema where the walls of the air sacs in the lungs break down include:

    • increasing breathlessness even during minor activity such as climbing the stairs
    • a persistent chesty cough with phlegm in smokers and non-smokers
    • frequent chest infections
    • persistent wheezing

    If left the symptoms will get worse. There may also be sudden 'flare ups' of symptoms.

  • Diagnosis icon plus

    If your consultant suspects you have emphysema, based on your complaints, they may conduct one of the following:

    • physical examination focusing on your breathing sounds, your heart and general physical appearance
    • a chest X-ray
    • a lung function test with a monitoring device
    • a blood test to check your white blood cell count or if you have a history of genetic disease
    • an arterial blood gas test to measure blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels
  • Potential treatment options icon plus

    The damage to the lungs caused by emphysema is permanent. Treatment can help slow down the diseases progress. What type of treatment depends on your own circumstances, but can include:

    • help to stop smoking
    • inhalers and medications to help make breathing easier
    • pulmonary rehabilitation (a specialised programme of exercise and education)
    • surgery or a lung transplant (a last resort for a very small number of people)

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This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
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