The first sign of the disease is a sensation of not being able to get enough air. In the initial stages of emphysema, shortness of breath (dyspnea) may be noticeable only during activity. In later stages, a person may struggle for air even when sitting quietly or lying down.
Other symptoms include:
- A mild but constant cough
- Continuous production of mucus or phlegm
- Feeling tired, due to less oxygen getting to the body
- Poor appetite. Eating becomes more of a strain because it takes more breath.
- Weight loss, caused by reduced interest in eating
Causes and Risk Factors
Smoking (including cigarettes, cigars and pipes) is the number one cause of emphysema, accounting for about 80% of all cases. Smoke damages the miniscule hairs in the bronchial tubes called cilia. Cilia are responsible for keeping irritating substances and germs out of air passages. When air passages are not regularly cleaned out, they become inflamed and the elastic fibers break down.
Other causes of emphysema are:
- Air pollution, both indoors and outdoors
- Chemical fumes and irritants found in certain workplace settings
- Lack of a lung-protecting protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin. This is a genetic condition.
- Exposure to second-hand smoke also contributes to the onset of emphysema
At highest risk for emphysema are people over 40 years old who have smoked for long periods of their life. Emphysema patients have an increased risk of other pulmonary diseases, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma and lung cancer.