Living with Emphysema: Understanding its 8 Symptoms

Living with emphysema can be a difficult and life-altering experience. The condition affects millions of people worldwide, making it important to understand the various symptoms it can cause. According to the American Lung Association, one of the diseases that comprises Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is emphysema. It involves the gradual damage of lung tissue which develops over time. Moreover, emphysema is also responsible for the destruction of alveoli (tiny air sacs). 

In the United States, over three million people have emphysema. This is strongly linked to smoking, making it one of the most preventable respiratory illnesses. Signs and symptoms for this condition will take years to develop. But you must know the possible symptoms to see if you have emphysema. By understanding the signs of emphysema, you can take the necessary steps to protect your lungs and lead a healthier life.

Unintended weight loss

This symptom isn’t as common as usual compared to chronic cough and shortness of breath. However, unintended weight loss can appear when the body is demanded by increased energy due to the effort of breathing. 

To expel carbon dioxide and take in oxygen, the body has to work harder when breathing becomes difficult. This will lead to weight loss caused by the increased energy needs of the body. People with emphysema can experience muscle wasting, which can result from weight loss. 

Heart problems

Heart problems can be seen as a coexisting condition or complication most individuals with emphysema have. The heart can become enlarged and weaker, which makes it harder to pump blood throughout the body due to its compensation for the lower oxygen levels. This can lead to a type of heart failure called cor pulmonale, which can occur due to lung disease. 

Some of the symptoms of cor pulmonale include fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, and swelling in the legs. People who have emphysema may also develop other conditions related to the heart, such as ischemic heart disease, hypertension, and arrhythmias. This is why individuals with emphysema must monitor their condition and seek help from healthcare professionals to prevent them from experiencing more severe conditions. 


Wheezing is a common symptom of emphysema. When the air flows through the narrowed airways, wheezing enters in and gives a high-pitched whistling sound. This can be more pronounced at night or during physical activities and also occurs when you breathe in and out. 

Often accompanied by other symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness, wheezing can be a sign of airway obstruction. It’s important to see a doctor immediately when you experience frequent wheezing and emphysema. The doctor may provide treatment such as bronchodilators or other medications to improve breathing and open up the airways.

Reduced ability to exercise or engage in physical activity 

Emphysema is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that’s challenging for an individual to breathe since it affects the air sac in the lungs. The condition can lead to a decrease in lung function, which can be difficult for you to engage in exercise or physical activity. Other common symptoms of emphysema, such as coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing, can be a hindrance for a person to continue engaging in physical activities. 

For instance, it may be extremely difficult for you to climb the stairs or walk short distances which were once easy. This can contribute to health problems such as fatigue and muscle weakness due to the reduction of physical activity. Aside from limitations in physical activity, emphysema can also decrease oxygen levels in the blood, making it difficult to perform basic activities in your everyday life.

Chronic cough

Chronic bronchitis leads to a persistent cough due to the inflammation of the tubes that bring air to your lungs (bronchial tubes). Therefore, people with emphysema may also have chronic bronchitis. These two conditions are the result of an even more severe condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

A chronic cough usually lasts for more than eight weeks. It may produce mucus and can also be dry and appear worse during the morning or night. Chronic cough in emphysema may be caused by several factors, such as inflammation, irritation of the airways, and mucus production. 

Rapid breathing

Also known as tachypnea, it is a common symptom of emphysema. Tachypnea is defined, for at least several minutes, to take more than 20 breaths per minute. For a healthy adult, the average respiratory rate ranges from 12 to 18 breaths per minute. 

Tachypnea or rapid breathing often occurs during emphysema and is accompanied by shortness of breath, a strong feeling of anxiety, inability to walk, and nausea or vomiting. Aside from emphysema, tachypnea can also be a sign of asthma and chronic bronchitis. 

Abnormal mucus color

A protective substance like mucus helps prevent and trap foreign particles from entering the lungs. The mucus can have a buildup in the airways when it becomes thicker and more difficult to clear. This can result in a change of color of the mucus, which can be green or yellow.

People who have emphysema along with a damaged lung tissue and weakened immune system may be more prone to having abnormal mucus color. This can also be a sign of bacterial infection. 

Trouble sleeping

Emphysema can also have trouble sleeping as a symptom. As emphysema progresses, you may experience respiratory symptoms that interfere with sleep due to chronic inflammation of the airways. According to research published in the National Library of Medicine, in cases of severe emphysema, there is poor quality and disturbance in your sleep, both subjectively and objectively. Moreover, nocturnal oxygen desaturation is common even for patients who don’t require oxygen in relation on the basis of awake values. 

Trouble sleeping in emphysema can be caused by several factors, such as coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. With these symptoms, you’ll find it difficult to fall asleep during the night. 


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