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Emphysema is a long-term lung disease that is most commonly caused by smoking. It is part of a group of lung diseases called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Emphysema damages the alveoli (air sacs) in your lungs. This makes it hard for your lungs to send oxygen to the rest of your body.

The Lungs


Call 911 if:

  • You have pain, pressure, or fullness in your chest that lasts more than a few minutes or returns.
  • You have pain or discomfort in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm.

Return to the emergency department if:

  • You have shortness of breath that is so severe you cannot talk.
  • You have a sudden cold sweat.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You are confused, dizzy, or feel like you may pass out.

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You have a fever.
  • You have trouble doing your usual activities because it is hard to breathe.
  • You need to use your inhalers or take breathing treatments more often than usual.
  • You cough up more sputum than is normal for you.
  • You wheeze more than is normal for you.
  • Your legs or ankles are swollen.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Do not smoke:

If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. Quitting smoking will improve your health and the health of those around you. If you smoke, ask for information about how to stop.


  • Bronchodilators help open your airway so you can breathe better. They are most often taken through one of the following devices:
    • An inhaler is a handheld device that delivers medicine that you breathe in.
    • A nebulizer is a machine that turns liquid medicine into mist that you breathe in through a mouthpiece.
  • Steroids decrease swelling in your lungs. They may be inhaled or taken as a pill.
  • Take your medicine as directed. Contact your healthcare provider if you think your medicine is not helping or if you have side effects. Tell him or her if you are allergic to any medicine. Keep a list of the medicines, vitamins, and herbs you take. Include the amounts, and when and why you take them. Bring the list or the pill bottles to follow-up visits. Carry your medicine list with you in case of an emergency.

Follow up with your healthcare provider or pulmonologist as directed:

Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

Emphysema exacerbation:

An exacerbation is when your symptoms suddenly get worse. You may have a harder time breathing, your cough may get worse, and you may cough up more sputum. You may have a fever, increased heart rate, or feel sleepy. An exacerbation may be caused by a lung infection, air pollution, or other lung irritants. Sometimes the cause of an exacerbation is unknown. Your healthcare provider or pulmonologist may change your treatment to help relieve exacerbations.

Manage your emphysema and help prevent an exacerbation:

  • Avoid irritants. Wear protective gear if your workplace has dust or chemicals that bother you. Stay inside when air quality is bad.
  • Seek treatment. Get early treatment if your symptoms are getting worse. This may help you recover faster. Know what to do in case of an exacerbation.
  • Exercise daily. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best exercise plan for you. Exercise can help decrease breathing problems and improve your health.
  • Use pursed-lip breathing. Pursed-lip breathing can be used any time you feel short of breath. It can be especially helpful before you start an activity.
    • Count to 2 while you take a deep breath in through your nose.
    • Slowly breathe out through your mouth with your lips slightly puckered. You should make a quiet hissing sound as you breathe out.
    • Repeat this exercise 4 or 5 times a day Once you are used to doing pursed-lip breathing, you can use it any time you need more air.
    Breathe in Breathe out

  • Use sleep positions that help you breathe better. Sleep with your upper body raised if you have trouble breathing when you lie down. Use foam wedges or elevate the head of your bed. Use a device that will tilt your whole body, or bend your body at the waist. The device should not bend your body at the upper back or neck. You may sleep better in a recliner.
  • Ask your healthcare provider about the flu and pneumonia vaccines. All adults should get the flu (influenza) vaccine as soon as recommended each year, usually in September or October. The pneumonia vaccine is given to adults aged 65 or older to prevent pneumococcal disease, such as pneumonia. Adults aged 19 to 64 years who are at high risk for pneumococcal disease also should get the pneumococcal vaccine. It may need to be repeated 1 or 5 years later.

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Learn more about Emphysema (Aftercare Instructions)

Associated drugs

IBM Watson Micromedex

Symptoms and treatments

Mayo Clinic Reference Guides (External)

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.