Pulmonary Emphysema Explained In-Depth With Symptoms, Causes, and Natural Treatment


We all know that smoking is dangerous and can cost you your lungs. One irreversible and chronic lung disease is pulmonary emphysema. 

Emphysema lung disease is in a group of lower respiratory infections. Together with chronic bronchitis, they make up chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Cigarette smoke, whether direct or indirect, is the primary cause of emphysema in adults. About eighty percent of all emphysema cases are as a result of smoking. It is a disease prevalent in men aged between 50 and 70.

Despite emphysema often occurring on its own, it can be more complicated due to comorbidity (co-occurring) with chronic bronchitis.

What is Emphysema Lung Disease?

Emphysema is a chronic lung disease and part of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is a progressive disease that damages the air sacs of the lungs (alveoli).

Statistics collected by CDC, the National Center for Health Statistics report that up to 2017, about three million adults in the US had been diagnosed with emphysema. The percentage of the figure against the population is one and a half.

The mortality rate of emphysema is 2.2 per 100,000 in the US, which sums up the figure to 7,085 emphysema deaths up to 2017. 

​Pulmonary Emphysema Explained

Since emphysema is COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) alongside chronic bronchitis, it is essential to learn about COPD in a nutshell.

COPD is a common chronic lung disease that inflames the airways to obstruct smooth airflow in the lungs. The condition causes production and mucus buildup, which is the main reason for airways obstruction. Coughing, wheezing, and breathing difficulty are some of COPD symptoms.

COPD is common to heavy smokers who smoke at least a pack of cigarettes daily for about ten years.

Chronic bronchitis is the lung condition that causes irritation and inflammation in the bronchial tubes. Together with emphysema, the two conditions cause mucus to build up in the airways. The airways would then block, causing breathing difficulties and hence the shortness of breath.

Emphysema mainly affects two main parts of your breathing system:

Bronchioles - Bronchioles are the tiny airways that branch out from the two main ones, bronchi, to join the small air sacs (alveoli). Emphysema attacks and damages the bronchioles making them collapse and block breathing.

The damaged and blocked airways trap air inside the lungs to burden them with high air volume, which leads to a condition called pulmonary hyperinflation.

Pulmonary hyperinflation would cause dyspnea or shortness of breath and a feeling of not having enough air (air hunger), some of the emphysema symptoms.

Alveoli - Alveoli are the tiny air sacs where both gases, oxygen, and carbon dioxide exchange while entering and leaving the bloodstream.

Emphysema attacks and damages the air sacs to weaken and stretch them out.

Over time the alveoli may lose elasticity and fail to stretch further, causing emphysema alveoli rupture. When that happens, the ruptured alveoli create large air spaces that would trap in oxygen. The air sacs lose the ability to receive or release enough oxygen for onward transmission to the bloodstream.

The inefficiency of the alveoli is the main reason for breathing difficulties and shortness of breath.

Emphysema obstructs the smooth flow of air exchange in and out of the air sacs causing the lungs to overfill. That is why it is in the group of 'obstructive' lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

As we mentioned, emphysema progresses over time, and therefore the damage of the lung tissues is also gradual.

You can live with emphysema for many years without realizing it. By the time the disease gets symptomatic, it would have caused a lot of damage to your lungs. No wonder COPD, which includes emphysema, is the third among the US's conditions with high fatality cases.

Pulmonary emphysema is the general name that describes the disease. Researchers have classified the disease into different types to help identify and diagnose it for effective treatment.

Three Types of Lungs Emphysema

Emphysema occurs differently depending on its effect in your lungs. There are three types of emphysema:

Centriacinar Emphysema. It is also known as centrilobular emphysema. It is the typical type of emphysema that occurs and damages the bronchioles. The infection then spreads to settle in the upper lobes of your lungs.

Panacinar Emphysema. This type affects your lungs' lower lobes and the bronchioles, which then spreads up to the air sacs. The disease mostly affects people who have a deficiency of alpha-1 antitrypsin protein.

Paraseptal Emphysema. It is also known as distal acinar emphysema. It is a rare type among the three and is localized around the lung pleura and fibrous septa. It involves the distal airways and the air sacs.

One of the Paraseptal emphysema characteristics is the formation of bullae (air-filled spaces) of the visceral pleura.

Emphysema also causes permanent and irreversible damage to the lungs, which might be challenging to treat. However, you can manage emphysema by inhibiting its progression into another level or stage. 

Four Progressive Stages of Emphysema

Emphysema is a progressive lung disease that progresses through stages. A pulmonologist or a doctor would categorize emphysema progression into four phases for easy diagnoses.

While it might be essential to categorize a case of emphysema, it is not enough to use it entirely as a diagnostic factor. Emphysema symptoms would also play a significant role in establishing the extent of the disease in a patient.

The set criteria of categorizing emphysema is by using the GOLD (Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease) system. It monitors the air volume that an emphysema patient forcefully breathes out in a second. The process is called FEV1 (forced expiratory volume).

A doctor or pulmonologist would perform the process by using a pulmonary function test that would differentiate the progressive emphysema stages by its severity as follows:

Stage 1. It is a mild emphysema stage. The FEV1 in this stage should be almost similar to the normal lung expiration force of 80 percent and above.

Stage 2. It is a moderate emphysema stage where the force of lung exhalation or FEV1 is below 80 percent but not less than 50 percent. When you are in this stage and are involved in strenuous activities, you experience coughing, exhaustion, and wheezing.

Stage 3. This stage is for the severe emphysema cases where the FEV1 is below 50 percent but not less than 30 percent. At this stage, the emphysema symptoms are severe, and your health is deteriorating.

Stage 4. This is the critical stage of emphysema. Most of the medical personnel would refer to it as the emphysema end stage, which is also life-threatening. At this stage, the emphysema patient would require emergency treatment to save a life.

The FEV1 at this level is below 30 percent of the normal force, which means the blood's oxygen is too low. You are continually experiencing the emphysema symptoms even while resting.

Most emphysema cases get treatment at a later stage posing challenges in treating and stopping the symptoms' progression. Such cases would have a reduced life expectance of approximately five years.

What Causes Emphysema?

One of the emphysema causes is long-term exposure to air pollutants, which damage the lungs' airways and air sacs.

Some of the pollutants are:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Chemical fumes
  • Dust
  • Genetic - Alpha-1 antitrypsin (a protein produced by the liver) insufficiency - is hereditary
Emphysema symptoms include constant coughing, difficulty breathing, and in extreme cases cyanosis, frequent lung infections and even ankle swelling.

What are the Symptoms of Emphysema

Emphysema is a progressive lung disease. At the onset, which is stage one, there may not be any symptoms. You may remain asymptomatic for many years. As the disease progresses, you gradually begin to experience some emphysema symptoms.

Two of the early symptoms are dyspnea (shortness of breath) and fatigue.

You may begin to experience more symptoms as emphysema progresses and damages about 50 percent of your lung tissue.

The following are some of the typical emphysema symptoms:

  • Wheezing
  • Constant coughing
  • Phlegm-producing cough
  • Breathing difficulties or shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Squeaky or whistling sounds when inhaling.
  • Additional symptoms at the latter stage of emphysema may include:
  • Frequent lung infections and inflammation flare-ups
  • Lack of appetite and reduced weight
  • Loss of energy and tiring easily
  • Cyanosis or a bluish color on the fingertips and nails, lips, and skin
  • Chest distention (barrel chest)
  • Lack of energy or concentration
  • Ankle swelling

Who is at Risk of Emphysema?

You are at risk of emphysema if fall under any of the following categories:

Smoking. The high placed cause of emphysema is smoking. Smokers are, therefore, at an increased risk of emphysema. The amount of tobacco inhaled and the duration of smoking determines the risk level of emphysema.

Passive Smoking. If you expose yourself to tobacco smoke such as being around or living with a tobacco smoker near you, you are a passive smoker. When you inhale tobacco smoke from someone else, you are at risk of emphysema.

Age. If you were once a smoker or exposed to smoke, you are at risk of emphysema. Remember, emphysema progresses gradually and would become evident at old-age during the symptomatic stage.

Occupational Pollutants. If you are continuously exposed to pollutants when working, you are at risk of emphysema. Some air pollutants are car exhaust fumes, heating fuel, chemical fumes, and mining dust.

Environmental Pollutants. Pollution from dust, such as soil, wood, grain pollen, are some of the other emphysema risk factors.

How to Prevent Emphysema or Reduce Emphysema Risks

Observe the following to prevent emphysema or to reduce your risk of getting emphysema:

Don't Smoke. If you have not started smoking, please don't start. You should also avoid exposing yourself to secondhand smoking, such as being near someone who is smoking.

Quit Smoking. Quit smoking to not only prevent emphysema but also to maintain your lungs' health. You can seek guidance from your doctor on how to join a quit smoking program near you.

Protection. Protect yourself whenever you expose to pollutants by wearing the right protective gear. Do that when working with chemicals, near smokes, near fumes, and other air pollutants.

You do not only protect your lungs from such pollutants, but you also prevent yourself from other severe health conditions such as cancer. Read more on Cancer and Human Environment.

Clean Air In Your Room. Learn to clean air around you if you must live in air pollutant conditions. You can do that by increasing ventilation and having the right houseplants.

Testing for emphysema may include PFT's, x-rays or blood tests - or a combination thereof.

Diagnosing Emphysema.

Before you get treatment, your doctor would first consider taking you through various examinations. The examinations are to determine whether you have emphysema and rule out other conditions with similar symptoms.

The following are some of the procedures for emphysema diagnosis.

Medical History. Your doctor would ask you questions concerning your health background and lifestyle, whether you smoke or not. Your doctor might ask you how you feel, what symptoms you are experiencing, and what has changed with your health over time.

Physical Examination. Your doctor would physically test your chest by using a stethoscope for sounds produced by your lungs when breathing. Your doctor may tap your chest to listen to an exaggerated resonant hollow sound. The sound would be an indication of emphysematous lungs that have some trapped air.

Another physical examination would be chest expansion (barrel chest) by checking the diameter from the anterior to the posterior side.

Pulmonary Function Tests (PFTs). Pulmonary function tests are noninvasive. Your doctor would perform such tests to check gas exchange in the lungs, rate of airflow, lung volume, and capacity.

Two of the instruments your doctor would use for pulmonary function tests are:

  • Spirometry - A spirometer has a mouthpiece that connects to an electronic device. It is the most common of PFTs instruments that measure the performance and breathing activities of the lungs.
  • Plethysmography - A plethysmograph is an airtight phone booth-like instrument that measures volume changes in various body parts. For instance, it is useful to accurately measure the air total lung capacity (TLC), volume in the lungs after a deep inhalation, and the air left in the lungs after exhaling.

Imaging Tests Emphysema Chest X-Ray. A chest x-ray would reveal any lung problem and other issues such as cardiac, blood vessels, spine, or the lungs. The results of x-ray images would help your doctor to diagnose emphysema.

Chest CT-Scan (Computerized Tomography Scan). CT-scan is a computer-operated instrument that captures cross-sectional body images. A CT-scan would be useful in diagnosing the lung's health issues for detailed pictures and information.

Blood Test. A blood test would help determine the lungs' performance using the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.

Treatment of emphysema starts with quitting smoking and may include oxygen therapy or in life-threatening cases, lung surgery or transplantation.

Emphysema Treatments

Emphysema is an incurable disease. However, a doctor can treat to relieve the symptoms and to inhibit its progression. The following are some ways to treat emphysema:

Stop Smoking

If you smoke tobacco, then emphysema treatment would begin with you. Smoking is an enemy of the lungs because it exacerbates the emphysema symptoms. Your doctor would advise you to stop smoking.

Smoking is a habit you can find difficult to break. However, your doctor can suggest various programs to help you.


Bronchodilators - Bronchodilators are quick relief of emphysema symptoms, which help to relax and open the airways. Bronchodilators can either be in the form of oral medicines or inhaling sprays.

Inhaled Steroids - Although inhaled steroids can lead to other health complications as side effects, the treatment can give you relief from emphysema symptoms. Your doctor may discuss with you the side effects of using inhaled steroids.

Antibiotics - Antibiotics can treat respiratory infections that are associated with emphysema, such as bacterial infection.


Oxygen - When breathing becomes difficult, you may require some oxygen to improve your low levels of blood oxygen. You can have supplemental oxygen in the hospital or at home, depending on your doctor's advice.

Protein Therapy - If alpha-1 antitrypsin is the cause of your emphysema disease, you may require the protein supplementation. An IV of the protein can improve your condition and help to inhibit the disease progression.


Lung Volume Reduction - Depending on your case, your doctor can suggest surgery. The surgery can be for lung volume reduction to remove the damaged small wedges of the lung tissue. The surgery helps to restore and improve your breathing.

Lung Transplant - In a worse case of severe lung damage, your doctor can recommend a lung transplant.

Zephyr Endobronchial Valve - Zephyr endobronchial valve is a new lung surgery treatment for a severe emphysema case. It is a minimally invasive surgery of the non-incision procedure.

Herbs such as ginseng, thyme, turmeric and peppermint, along with others, are known to have a profound and positive effect on emphysema.

Emphysema Natural Treatment

Most of the standard or conventional treatments for emphysema are not without problems but have adverse side-effects. Researchers believe that most of the natural therapies have profound positive effects on various health problems.

The original folklore treatment has always involved alternative or herbal remedies. Many doctors dismiss the treatment as archaic and as having been overtaken by modern culture.

Herbs and supplements are an effective emphysema treatment that most natural enthusiasts would prefer using. It does not matter the cause of the emphysema. You can alleviate your symptoms by complementing your standard treatment with some of the natural remedies.

The following are some of the choicest emphysema natural treatments that can improve your breathing.

  • Thyme. Thymus vulgaris is the scientific name of thyme. It is an herb suitable for treating respiratory conditions such as emphysema and acute bronchitis while relieving cough. Thyme extracts can help to relax clear mucus in the airways. One study describes thyme as a "secretory and bronchiolitis agent." It means that thyme can dilate the airways to increase airflow to and from the lungs. However, you should consult your natural health practitioner before using it. Thyme is not suitable for anyone using blood thinners as it exacerbates bleeding. Also, if you are using hormonal drugs, you should seek medical advice before using thyme. It has the same effects as estrogen.
  • Peppermint. You must be familiar with peppermint as a remedy for cold symptoms. What you might not have known is how peppermint works. The menthol in the peppermint is useful in the decongestion of the lungs' airways. It is a natural expectorant that breaks up mucus to loosen it. Warning: peppermint is not for use on infants, and also peppermint oil is too concentrated for ingesting.
  • Ginseng. Ginseng is an herb mostly found and used in the Asian traditional treatments. It has various treatment benefits, and among them, the respiratory. There are varieties of ginseng species in different regions. Panax ginseng, also known as Asian, Chinese, or Korean, is the best type of ginseng whose roots extract the original healing compounds. This herb is the best natural treatment for COPD, which includes emphysema. It is known to improve the lungs' health and functions because of its optimal effect in boosting immunity. One study concludes that ginseng improves pulmonary functions with no side effects, backing up its usefulness in COPD treatment.
  • Ginger. Ginger goes beyond spicing your food. It is an age-old healing root among the best choice of folklore traditional medicine. For lung health, ginger helps to relax airways muscles and break down mucus that inhibits the smooth airflow. It contains anti-inflammatory properties that help in flushing out toxins from the respiratory tract. You can experience irritation in the mouth and throat, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, or heartburn when using ginger.
  • Garlic. Garlic is a natural antibiotic that can help in decongesting your lung airways and fighting inflammation. It is a favorite herb with the natural therapist in the East for its all-round treatment.
  • Turmeric. ​Turmeric contains a compound known as curcumin, which has a wide range of health benefits such as reducing lung inflammation. Curcumin works against inflammation by providing antioxidants that neutralize oxidants and radicals. Some medical studies have proved that curcumin also fights against toxins that can cause lung inflammation. Tobacco smoke toxifies the lungs and hence the need for the antioxidant in curcumin, which can help clear the toxins.
  • English Ivy. English ivy is a herb that can improve your breathing by relaxing the airway muscles and decongesting the airways.
  • N-Acetylcysteine (NAC). NAC is an antioxidant supplement useful in relieving emphysema symptoms and other respiratory conditions by reducing inflammation. It decongests your lungs by loosening sputum for ease of expectoration. It also helps to thin mucus and to expectorate the phlegm through coughing. Phlegm buildup is the reason for breathing problems with emphysema patients. One study on N-acetylcysteine in treating COPD demonstrates that administering NAC can decrease the respiratory system's oxidants level. It can also boost the standard bronchodilators administered to COPD patients.

CAUTION! Herbs and supplements can vary in quality and potency, and you should seek advice if taking medications for there could be contradictions. Think of how your local pharmacist knows drugs and consults on which drugs interact with others? Natural Health Practitioners and Master Herbalists like Yvonne know which quality herbs work on what ailment and can tell you how to use them together.In our expert experience, the right herbs could help restore and heal your body faster and safer.

NOTE: A great many over-the-counter natural remedies you can buy online or at a health food store are not regulated for quality control; therefore, far less effective for health concerns. You could be wasting money taking different products, hoping they will affect your healing. One call with Yvonne can answer all of your questions.

Contact us today to arrange a free phone or virtual consultation from anywhere in North America. Yvonne Dollard Perc is a Master Herbalist with over 35 years of clinical experience helping very sick people recover naturally. She will consult with you personally, taking into account your current medical history, including any medications and herbs you are taking now. Then she will recommend the safest and most effective natural protocol custom tailored for YOU.


Emphysema is a chronic and life-threatening lung disease that causes irreversible lung damage. While it is prevalent with people who smoke, it can affect anybody else due to other conditions.

Although it is a progressive lung disease, you can inhibit its progression by seeking early treatment.

You can talk more about emphysema disease with our Natural Health Practitioner and Master Herbalist, Yvonne. If you suspect of having emphysema, it does not matter how far you are. 

Click here to get help through our virtual consultation.

Book your time with Natural Therapist by calling our Island Healthworks Natural Clinic telephone number 250-468-7685 or reach her through our email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Your preliminary phone consultations is free, and Yvonne can be specific with your program.

If this information is useful to you, it can also be helpful to someone else. Please share. You never know; you can save a life by improving someone else's health.

What is your take on this? Please comment and share with us.

Behind every breath, there are two ever-active and healthy organs – Take care of your lungs.

Yvonne Dollard Perc: Owner of Island Healthworks, Natural Health Practitioner, Teacher, Writer and Editor.
Elizabeth Njuguna: Researcher, Freelance Writer, with a Focus on Natural Health.
Sherry Robb: Print, Web and Social Media Designer Specializing in the Natural Health and Fitness Industries.

Island Healthworks offers in-person and virtual consultations for assessment of your specific needs, with health & lifestyle coaching, featuring the best of integrative natural health care. To book your consultation, please call 250-468-7685!

This article is intended for educational purposes and the information contained within is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure any disease or health problem. Please seek appropriate medical attention for any health complaints. We cannot take responsibility for your health care decisions. Our intent is only to offer health information to help you with your search for better health. 

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Saturday, 08 May 2021