UC San Diego Health
Health Library Explorer
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z A-Z Listings Contact Us
Search Results
Translate

What Is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a lung disease that limits the movement of air in and out of your lungs, making breathing harder. Emphysema is most often caused by heavy, long-time cigarette smoking. Emphysema is one of a group of conditions called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Healty airways with muscle, air sacs and blood vessels labeled.
Cross-section of healthy airways

Healthy Lungs

  • Inside the lungs are branching airways made of stretchy tissue. Each airway is wrapped with bands of muscle that help keep it open. Air travels in and out of the lungs through these airways.

  • The tubes branch into smaller passages called bronchioles. These end in clusters of balloon-like sacs called alveoli.

  • Blood vessels surrounding the alveoli move oxygen into the blood. At the same time, the alveoli remove carbon dioxide or waste from the blood. The carbon dioxide is then exhaled.

 

Image showing cut away of collapsed airways, air sacs that have lost clustered shape and damaged blood vessels.

When You Have Emphysema

  • Airways become damaged. When the lung tissue loses its stretchiness, the surrounding airways collapse more easily and trap air in the lungs. 

  • Damaged airways collapse when you exhale, causing air to get trapped in the alveoli. This trapped air makes breathing harder.

  • Over time, the air sacs lose their clustered shape and don't work well. And, less oxygen enters the blood.

  • The air sacs enlarge and the diaphragm flattens. This makes it even harder for the lungs to move air in and out.

 

Online Medical Reviewer: Akin, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
Date Last Reviewed: 6/18/2014
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.