A picture of diseased lungs.
The leading cause of emphysema is smoking.

What is Emphysema?

What is emphysema? Emphysema tends to be known as a smoker’s health condition, but non-smokers can get it too. Over time, consistent exposure to certain irritants can cause irreparable damage to your lungs, making breathing much more difficult. In this article, we touch upon how emphysema can affect lung cancer patients, what it is, how it can be treated and discuss treatment options like Prolastin-C, used to treat alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD). It is administered intravenously and works by increasing the levels of AAT in the blood, helping to protect the lungs and liver from damage caused by inflammation.

Drinks That Are Bad for Lung Health

  • Soda.
  • Sugary fruit juices.
  • Energy drinks.
  • Alcohol.
  • Sugary coffee beverages.
  • Sweetened teas.
  • Full-fat dairy milk.
  • Sweetened dairy-based drinks.
  • Flavored alcoholic beverages.
  • High-sugar sports drinks.

Understanding Emphysema

Emphysema is a lung condition that falls under a category of diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Emphysema is a disease of the lungs that causes shortness of breath because of damage to lung tissue and alveoli (tiny air sacs).

This condition causes the wall of the alveoli to weaken or rupture. When this happens, they lose their elasticity and it reduces the surface area of the lungs; instead of many small air spaces, there are fewer large ones. Less surface area in the lungs means that less oxygen reaches the bloodstream, leaving your body at an oxygen deficit. It is a progressive condition that only gets worse with time.

Emphysema and Lack of Oxygen-Rich Air

To work properly in healthy lungs, alveoli stretch to capture oxygen when you breathe and transport it to the blood. When you exhale, the air sacs shrink and expel carbon dioxide. When alveoli are damaged by emphysema, alveoli cannot properly support the bronchial tubes, which may collapse and cause a blockage so that old air can get trapped inside the lungs, reducing the capacity for oxygen-rich air to enter.

What Causes Emphysema?

The leading cause of emphysema is smoking. Inhaling tobacco smoke or marijuana smoke speeds up damage to the lungs. Other causes of emphysema include irritants, such as air pollution, chemical fumes and dust. Breathing in these types of particles and irritants aggravates the lungs and causes damage that builds up over time.

In rare cases, it is the result of genetics. In some instances, an inherited deficiency of a particular protein that protects the elastic structures in the lungs causes emphysema. This condition is called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency emphysema.

Emphysema and Lung Cancer

While lung cancer does not cause emphysema, emphysema can cause complications for lung cancer patients. The biggest cause of lung cancer is smoking, much like emphysema and COPD. If a lung cancer patient has emphysema, it may worsen their symptoms, as their lung function has decreased. Not only do they have trouble getting proper oxygen due to the disease, but their lungs are weakened as well from the cancer.

Also, research shows that if a person has COPD or emphysema, their risk of getting lung cancer increases, as these lung diseases often promote abnormal cell growth. Unfortunately, this link does not solely rely on smoking, as people who have emphysema and are non-smokers are also at risk.

Risk Factors for Emphysema:

  • Smoking: This is the number one reason people get emphysema. It’s seen commonly in cigarette smokers, but other types of products, such as marijuana, cigars and pipes, may also cause damage. Your risk increases the more you smoke with each year you have been a smoker.
  • Age: The damage from tobacco-related emphysema and the symptoms it produces start to unveil themselves between the ages of 40 to 60.
  • Second-hand smoke: Even if you are not a smoker, inhaling someone else’s cigarette smoke increases your risk.
  • Occupational exposure: Some jobs require you to be exposed to fumes or dust throughout the workday. Breathing in certain chemicals or dust from grain, cotton, wood, or mining products, may damage the lungs. In these types of career fields, make sure to wear the appropriate personal protective gear, including a respirator and facemask.
  • Pollution: Breathing pollution, such as fumes from car exhaust or heating fuel can increase your risk of emphysema. Avoid inhaling chemicals and fumes both indoors and outdoors to limit your exposure.
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What are the Symptoms of Emphysema?

Symptoms for this lung condition take a long time to develop—you may have it for years and have no idea. To put it in perspective, symptoms may not be noticed until a person has smoked about a pack each day for about two decades. The most common symptom is shortness of breath, which begins gradually and gets progressively worse. Other symptoms (including alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency emphysema):

  • A long-term cough, known as “smoker’s cough.”
  • Feeling like you are not able to inhale enough air.
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • Wheezing.
  • Long-term mucus production.
  • Persistent fatigue.
  • Blue or gray-colored lips or fingernails.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Barrel-like distended chest.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Morning headaches.
  • Difficulty sleeping.

Treatment Options for Emphysema

Emphysema can be controlled, but it cannot be reversed once the damage has been done. Treatment for emphysema does not offer a cure, but it can relieve symptoms, address complications and manage disability.

A diagnosis is reached using a chest x-ray, CT scan, lab tests and lung function tests. Once a doctor determines the extent of the damage, they can recommend treatment specific to you.


These are used to help relieve symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe a bronchodilator to open your airway to address breathing issues and help relieve coughing. Corticosteroid drugs inhaled as aerosol spray may help with shortness of breath. Antibiotics may be used to treat any bacterial infection that may be present.

For emphysema which is the result of alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency emphysema, Glassia, an alpha1-proteinase inhibitor (a protein) is an injection that may be prescribed by the doctor. The protein helps prevent the breakdown of lung tissue due to the genetic condition. This is a medication used approximately once a week.

Oxygen Therapy

This is also known as supplemental oxygen therapy, which gives those with low oxygen levels additional oxygen that they can use as directed and may be advised to use 24 hours a day. It’s usually administered through a tube that sends oxygen through your nostrils. Some of these devices are portable and others are meant for the home.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

This is a type of physical therapy. This treatment combines an exercise program with breathing exercises and techniques, psychological support and education. Pulmonary rehabilitation may help reduce your breathlessness, conserve energy, improve your stamina and offer an improved sense of wellbeing.

Nutrition Therapy

Diet changes offer safe and healthy instruction, which may help some patients who need to lose weight in the early stages of emphysema and those who need to gain weight in later stages.


This is a treatment option for those who have severe lung damage or have not had success with other treatments. Lung volume reduction surgery removes small pieces of damaged lung tissue to help improve the function of the remaining tissue by giving it room to expand and work more efficiently. In some cases where damage is extreme, a lung transplant may be a viable option.


Prolastin-C is a medication used for treating alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD), a genetic disorder that can cause lung and liver issues due to low levels of a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT). This medication contains AAT derived from human plasma. It's given via intravenous infusion to boost AAT levels in the blood, which helps safeguard the lungs and liver from inflammation-related damage. Individuals with AATD must consult their healthcare provider to discuss treatment options and create a suitable management plan.

The Takeaway

Emphysema is one of the most preventable types of respiratory disease; in many cases, all it takes is kicking a cigarette habit. There are several options and aids available to help you stop smoking—your respiratory health is in your hands.