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Everything you need to know about living well with emphysema

  • Introduction
  • Symptoms
  • Treatments
  • Daily Living
  • Support
  • Glossary


If you, or someone you know, have recently been given a diagnosis of emphysema, this guide will help you understand what it is and will cover lots of aspects of living with emphysema.

You may be wondering, what is emphysema? Below, we explore emphysema symptoms, emphysema treatments, causes of emphysema, and lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of emphysema or improve your condition.

Any medical information provided here is for informational purposes and does not replace medical advice given to you by a medical professional. If you are concerned that you may have any of the emphysema symptoms discussed below, please see your GP.


What is emphysema?

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is a disease of the lungs that gets gradually worse over time. The main cause of emphysema is smoking or being around tobacco smoke.

Emphysema causes irreversible damage to a person’s lungs, which inevitably affects their ability to breathe to some degree – this will be different for each person with the condition.

Over a million people in the UK have some form of COPD, many of these people specifically have emphysema. Emphysema usually affects people aged 50 and over, but some younger people do develop the condition, although it may be very mild at the beginning with symptoms of emphysema that may be hardly noticeable or attributed to something else.

For more information on emphysema, visit the NHS website.

What causes emphysema?

Emphysema causes breathing problems due to damage within the lungs.

Lungs are organs that enable the body to breathe in oxygen, which the blood carries around to the heart and other organs. Within the lungs, small air sacs called alveoli, work to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide, which is breathed out as a waste gas. In emphysema, the alveoli become so damaged that they burst. As the number of functioning alveoli is reduced, the lungs become less able to breathe out the carbon dioxide, and have less room for fresh oxygen, which results in emphysema symptoms of shortness of breath.

Tobacco smoking is the most common cause of emphysema. Smoking means a person inhales thousands of poisons, chemicals and toxins that damage the lungs, as well as making the person at risk of other serious health problems such as stroke and heart disease. Stopping smoking can help reduce the risk of developing emphysema and other lung conditions, and it can help stop further lung damage for people who have already been given an emphysema diagnosis. To understand more about how smoking affects your body, visit the Smokefree website.

Not everybody who has emphysema will be or will have been a smoker. Exposure to second hand smoke is also a risk factor, so it is important to avoid being around smokers. Exposure to pollutants, chemicals and other irritants can also cause emphysema to develop.

Find out more about what causes emphysema.

Did you know... “Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease which is a serious lung condition.”

Symptoms of Emphysema

Here, we explore emphysema symptoms that are often experienced with the condition.

Whilst many emphysema symptoms are common amongst people with the condition, each person will experience the disease differently and to different levels.

Sometimes, symptoms of emphysema are present for many years before a person seeks medical advice. The condition often starts off with mild symptoms that may be hardly noticeable.

If you think you have any of the symptoms listed here or are concerned about your breathing, see your GP. These symptoms are often symptoms of other healthcare conditions but it is advisable to have these checked as soon as they appear. If you do receive a diagnosis of emphysema, there are emphysema treatments available that can help reduce the impact of your symptoms and stop the condition getting any worse.


Common symptoms of emphysema include:

• Feeling out of breath, as though you cannot catch your breath, or feeling as though breathing is strenuous

• Regular or ongoing chesty cough

• Phlegm

• Regular chest infections

• Wheezing sound when breathing or exercising

If the condition progresses, emphysema symptoms may include:

• Fatigue due to taking in less oxygen

• Poor appetite

• Weight loss

• Sleep problems e.g. sleep apnoea


Breathlessness in early stages may occur at certain times of the day, for example, after exercising or during the night. There are lots of emphysema triggers that people report make their symptoms worse e.g. cold weather.

The NHS provides more information on emphysema symptoms.

Diagnosis of emphysema

There are lots of reasons that people feel breathless, and if you are having breathlessness symptoms, there may be other reasons such as anxiety, stress, asthma, reaction to medication, allergies, etc. However, it is advisable to have this checked out by your GP. If you present with potential emphysema symptoms, your GP will probably listen to your breathing, ask if you are (or have ever been) a smoker, order a blood test and perhaps send you for a chest X-ray.

The British Lung Foundation provides a getting the best from your doctor guide which may be helpful to you.

Did you know... “Emphysema causes breathing to become difficult and may get progressively worse over time.”

Treatments for Emphysema

Learn more about emphysema treatments here.

Emphysema is not curable, but there are emphysema treatment options available to some people. These are designed to help lessen the impact of emphysema symptoms on everyday life. There are medications available to help control symptoms, devices required in later stages of emphysema to deliver oxygen to the lungs and some surgical options that are available to a limited number of people.

If you are given a diagnosis of emphysema, your specialists will work out the best treatment plan for you, which may change over time as your condition progresses or whilst they find the right medications for you. You are also likely to be advised on important lifestyle changes you should make in order to slow down the progression of your disease.


There are lots of medications available to help open your airways, reduce inflammation in the lungs, reduce excessive mucus production and increase the amount of oxygen being inhaled. Some people are prescribed steroids or beta-2 agonists which are self-administered by an inhaler.

People with severe emphysema may require use of a nebuliser, which is a device that delivers medication through a mask or mouthpiece. Some people also require oxygen therapy, which involves breathing oxygen through a face mask or mouth piece, from an oxygen tank for several hours or most of the day. If you are prescribed oxygen therapy, you may have lots of questions, and may wish to visit the British Lung Foundation website for more information.

Some people with advanced emphysema may have the option of surgery, such as a lung transplant, which is a serious operation with many risk factors to take into account. For information about various surgical emphysema treatment options, consult your specialist of visit the British Lung Foundation website.

Smoking and emphysema

If you are given a diagnosis of emphysema and currently smoke, you will be strongly advised to stop smoking to help slow down the progression of your condition and make your breathing easier. For more advice on how to quit smoking, visit the NHS Stop Smoking webpage.

Did you know... “Emphysema is caused by damage to the lungs, specifically to the small air sacs called alveoli.”

Living with Emphysema

Read on to find out more about living with emphysema and how to have a good quality of life.

After a diagnosis of emphysema, you are likely to feel a lot of different emotions such as shock, worry, fear, anxiety… this is normal. It may take some time to come to terms with this and to find out more information about your available emphysema treatment options. You may need to make some changes to your life, for example, stopping smoking or starting an exercise regime.

There is no way to say how emphysema will affect a person’s life, because each person is an individual and will experience their symptoms differently. The condition progresses differently for everybody. However, below we explore different aspects of life with emphysema.


Impact on daily living

People with emphysema are still able to find a good quality of life. Many still work, socialise, travel and so on. Depending on how severe your condition is, you may find some aspects of daily life challenging due to being breathless or fatigued. This is more likely for anyone living with advanced emphysema.

Getting around – mobility can sometimes be an issue for people with severe emphysema and you may require some mobility equipment. Read on to find out more about daily living aids that can help you

Sleeping and relaxing – feeling out of breath can be discomforting and stressful, with some people finding breathlessness symptoms worse at night, resulting in poor quality sleep. You may find support from Hope2Sleep, a charity that helps people with sleep apnoea and related conditions. You may also wish to explore mindfulness meditation, which helps with relaxation and dealing with emotion

Doing chores – again, fatigue and breathlessness can mean that doing housework becomes difficult. There are many daily living aids that can help you

Going on holiday – you may have lots of things to consider before you go on holiday, such as medication, travel insurance, mobility and so on. The British Lung Foundation provides lots of advice about travelling with a lung condition

Mental health – it can be difficult to live with a health condition, and some people find they have low mood, anxiety, anger, stress or depression as a result. Visit the Mind website for advice and consider counselling to discuss your problems

You may wish to get a better understanding of what it is like living with emphysema by reading stories from other people affected by the condition.

Products for emphysema

At NRS Healthcare, we supply daily living aids which can help make daily tasks easier if you have a chronic condition or disability. Below, we list a selection of products that may help you retain independence if you have emphysema, particularly if it is quite advanced and making daily life a challenge for you.

Mobility aids:

o 4-wheel rollator with a seat

o Transit wheelchair

o Attendant controlled wheelchair

Toileting aids:

o Traditional commode

o Folding commode

o Porta Potti

Bathing aids:

o Bath lift

Shower aids:

o Shower chair

Bed and chair aids:

o Bed rail

o Furniture raisers

o Rise and recline chair

o Electrically operated bed

Aids for household chores:

o Household trolley

o Perching stool

o Exercise aids

o Pedal exerciser

If you are unsure what products may help you or someone you know, NRS Healthcare has a team of Occupational Therapist product advisors who can advise you. Contact them on 0345 121 8111 or email [email protected]

Diet for emphysema

Keeping to a healthy weight and eating healthy foods is important for people with emphysema, to help ensure the lungs and heart are not put under additional stress, and to help the body function to the best of its ability. There is no definitive emphysema diet to follow, except for a balanced one. Drinking lots of fluid, especially water, can help to reduce excess mucus and flush toxins through the body. Read the Eatwell Guide for more information on healthy diet for emphysema.

Emphysema can sometimes cause loss of appetite or difficulty eating and drinking due to being breathless. If this is the case for you or a family member, you may wish to read the British Lung Foundation’s advice eating well with a lung condition.

Exercise for emphysema

If you have received a diagnosis of emphysema, you will be advised to get regular, aerobic exercise that gets your heart beating faster. You may be advised to go on a pulmonary rehabilitation course, which is designed to help people with lung conditions learn about exercise and start an exercise regime. Speak to your GP about emphysema exercise or pulmonary rehabilitation courses that they may be able to refer you to. Your GP may also refer you to a physiotherapist, who can help you find suitable exercises for emphysema, taking into account your abilities and symptoms.

The NHS provides more advice about getting fit and the British Lung Foundation provides information about keeping active with a lung condition.

Emphysema and employment

People with emphysema may be able to continue to work. Some may need to change jobs or reduce their hours. Everyone is different. If you decide to continue to work, you may benefit from telling your employer about your condition. If you decide you are unable to work, you may wish to explore financial support you can apply for. The My Lungs, My Life website provides lots of information about emphysema and work.

Did you know... “Smoking is the biggest cause of emphysema and stopping smoking if you have the condition will greatly improve your quality of life.”

Support for Emphysema

Remember – you are not alone!

We hope this guide to emphysema has been useful and informative for you, whether you or someone you know has the condition. Lung conditions are common in the UK, which means you are not going through this alone. Whilst your experience will be unique, there are people in a similar situation to you, and emphysema support services available that may help you.

Below, we provide you with more sources of emphysema help, such as forums where you can talk to other people with a similar condition, and a list of other online information resources. If you are concerned about anything you read in this guide, or your health in any way, please discuss with your GP.



British Lung Foundation Forum – an online forum for people with emphysema and other lung conditions


British Lung Foundation – the UK’s leading charity for people with lung conditions, offering information on a variety of lung conditions, a helpline and local support network

My Lungs My Life – practical advice and information about living with emphysema

NHS Choices – source of official medical information about causes, symptoms and treatments for emphysema, COPD and other lung conditions

Did you know... “Exercise can greatly improve emphysema symptoms and help reduce the progression of the condition.”


Unsure what something means? Checkout our Glossary section below.

Although we always try to explain things as simply and as clearly as possible, sometimes it’s necessary to use the correct medical terminology. Medical terms are often known for being tricky to pronounce and if you’re not an expert in the subject, they can also be a little difficult to understand. Below, we’ve put together a list of terms used on this page along with a brief explanation of what they mean to help make your understanding of emphysema as straightforward as possible.



– tiny sacs in the lungs where exchange of gas occurs, allowing carbon dioxide waste gas to be exhaled

Beta-2 agonists

– inhaler medication that reduces breathlessness and enlarges airways


– collection of fluid in tissues in the body, often the ankles/lower limbs, which become swollen

Sleep apnoea

– a breathing disorder which causes the process of breathing to be interrupted during sleep


– medication that reduces airway inflammation

Last updated on 05/02/2019

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