Understanding Emphysema: What Causes This Chronic Lung Condition?

When you have emphysema, a blockage or obstruction can trap air inside your lungs when it’s developed. Emphysema is a lung disease that results from the destruction of the walls of the alveoli in your lungs. Your chest may have a barrel-chested appearance or appear fuller if too much air is trapped in your lungs. Less oxygen can move into your bloodstream due to fewer alveoli. 

Understanding the causes of emphysema is crucial to manage the condition and prevent it effectively. This condition is commonly associated with cigarette smoking, but it’s essential to be aware of other causes that might tell you that you have emphysema. You can confirm that you have emphysema if you have the following conditions:

Poor nutrition

This is a less commonly known cause of emphysema. The body requires vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients to maintain healthy lungs. Particularly, antioxidants neutralize harmful molecules known as free radicals, which can cause oxidative stress. Therefore, they play a crucial role in protecting the lungs from damage.

Meanwhile, a diet low in antioxidants can exacerbate and increase the risk of developing emphysema, especially for those who already have it. Additionally, poor nutrition makes it more difficult for the body to fight respiratory infections that can worsen or cause emphysema since it can weaken the immune system. For example, a Vitamin D deficiency can increase the risk of lung damage and impair lung function.

Occupational exposure

Occupational exposures such as gasts, fumes, and vapours can contribute to the progression and development of emphysema or COPD, according to a study. This accounts for 14% of the population attribute fraction. In particular inorganic dust and workplace pollutants can initiate inflammation and air damage. This is due to challenges in clinical settings in assessing the occupational component, as well as if other risk factors are present.

This cause can be experienced by individuals who work in industries like agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and mining. Chemicals such as silica, asbestos, and coal dust cause emphysema. You must keep in mind that occupational exposure as a cause of emphysema depends on the intensity and the duration of the vulnerability and the susceptibility to lung damage of an individual. 

Respiratory infections

Both acute and chronic lower respiratory tract infections occur in increased frequency in the setting of emphysema or COPD, according to a study. These infections constitute a significant comorbidity in COPD as conditions contribute considerably to the patient’s clinical course with emphysema or COPD. The occurrence of exacerbations of emphysema or COPD is clearly linked with recurrent acute infections by viral or bacterial pathogens.

The development of emphysema is caused by other infections such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses because they can damage the lungs over time. The body’s immune system of a person responds by sending white blood cells to fight off the infection when it experiences a respiratory infection. 


Most people between the ages of 40 and 60 begin to experience symptoms of emphysema, especially if they have tobacco-related emphysema. This cause is a significant factor in developing emphysema. People can experience difficulty breathing when the lungs naturally lose their elasticity. It’s essential to keep in mind that aging alone isn’t a direct cause of emphysema; it can still increase the possibility for the condition to progress.

This is mainly for individuals with other risk factors, such as exposure to occupational hazards, and when they have a history of smoking. This is why it’s essential to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid environmental factors that will damage the lungs. Also, seeking medical attention is necessary if you experience symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath. 

Air pollution

According to a study, increasing emphysema is significantly associated with long-term exposure to ambient air pollutants. Fine particulate matter and ozone are exposed to high levels of pollution, which can cause damage to the air sacs and inflammation, leading to emphysema. 

Existing respiratory conditions and their symptoms, such as COPD and asthma, can be exacerbated by air pollution. Which is why it’s essential to limit exposure to polluted air as much as possible in order to reduce the risk of developing emphysema. Moreover, advocating for policies related to reducing air pollution, such as regulations on industrial emissions and clean energy initiatives, are at most essential. 


Smoking is the most common cause of emphysema. The chemicals in cigarette smoke can crush the elastic fibers in the lungs that allow them to come into contact during breathing and also will enable them to stretch. This can result in the development of emphysema, and the risk increases with the intensity and duration of smoking.

Even individuals can still have the risk of developing emphysema, despite being able to quit smoking. Because the damage to the lungs due to smoking can persist even after years of quitting. 


There is a specific genetic basis for developing diseases in about one out of every 50 cases of emphysema at an earlier age. As a result, worse diseases can be seen than those with the risk factors of developing disease. Some people may even have a genetic link to emphysema or COPD. This genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) is a deficiency that can be the cause of emphysema or COPD.

It was estimated by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute that 100,00 Americans have AAT, and this decreases their risk of having emphysema or COPD. Even if a person is a non-smoker, a person with AAT deficiency is more likely to develop emphysema or COPD. 


For individuals with poorly controlled asthma over a long period of time, asthma can be a risk factor for developing emphysema. Both emphysema and asthma are chronic respiratory conditions, despite having different causes, can damage the air sacs and cause inflammation. It’s important to note that asthma and emphysema or COPD have similar symptoms, such as wheezing, shortness of breath, persistent cough, and chest tightness.

Both asthma and emphysema or COPD are potentially life-threatening conditions. They’re treated with quick-relief inhalers for daily controller medications and respiratory emergencies. These treatments can help improve breathing, keep airways open, and reduce mucus. A person whose lungs have been damaged due to poorly controlled asthma is at increased risk of having emphysema or COPD, as well as when the person is continuously exposed to irritants such as tobacco smoke.  


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