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Emphysema

Emphysema can be a part of COPD.

Emphysema can be a part of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). With emphysema, which affects the air sacs in your lungs (called alveoli), you may feel like you can’t take a deep breath.

When you have emphysema, inflammation in your airways causes the inner walls of these air sacs to weaken and eventually break down—creating one larger air space instead of many small ones. This reduces the surface area of the lungs and reduces the amount of oxygen that is able to reach your bloodstream. The damaged air sacs are also unable to squeeze out all of the air inside them when you exhale. This air becomes trapped in your lungs, leaving less room for fresh air. All of this can make you feel short of breath.

  • Inflammation causes the air sacs to become damaged and break down. This damage decreases the elasticity of the air sacs. Think of an old balloon that is no longer stretchy and loses its shape
  • Old air gets trapped inside the air sacs, so there is less room for new air to get in
From New England Journal of Medicine, Mitzner W, Emphysema—a disease of small airways or lung parenchyma? 365(17):1638. Copyright 2011 Massachusetts Medical Society. Reprinted with permission from Massachusetts Medical Society.

As emphysema progresses into the later stages of the disease, patients are sometimes placed on oxygen therapy to help with their breathing.

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