Emphysema: Symptoms & Signs

Medically Reviewed on 9/10/2019

Emphysema is a disease of the lung in which the alveoli (small sacs) that allow oxygen exchange between the air and the bloodstream are destroyed. Emphysema is one of the known causes of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The primary symptom of emphysema is difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Other associated symptoms can include wheezing, cough, chest pain, and chest tightness. Early on in the disease course, symptoms may only occur with exercise, but as the condition progresses, symptoms occur at rest.

Causes of emphysema

The main cause of emphysema is tobacco smoking, so emphysema is considered to be a preventable disease in most cases. There are other genetic conditions that can cause emphysema, but these are rare in comparison to smoking. Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is a genetic cause of emphysema.

Other emphysema symptoms and signs

  • Chest Pain
  • Chest Tightness
  • Cough
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Wheezing


COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the same as adult-onset asthma. See Answer

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.