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What is pulmonary emphysema (COPD)?

Updated: December 2018

Pulmonary emphysema, which also is referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), occurs in the case of chronic diseases of the bronchi and lungs.

The lungs become bloated and the pulmonary alveoli are stretched. Due to constant distension, the alveoli and their separating walls are destroyed. Thus, the surface area of ​​the alveoli available for gaseous exchange decreases sharply overall.

As a result of pulmonary emphysema, the body is no longer supplied with oxygen. The performance of those affected decreases; they become short of breath and more frequently experience respiratory distress.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

Pulmonary emphysema or COPD develops gradually.

Among the initial symptoms of pulmonary emphysema is respiratory distress associated with physical exertion, also sometimes coughing. In later stages, there is an increasing frequency of respiratory distress. The cough becomes more severe, especially in the morning. The symptoms last for years. Typical side effects are frequent respiratory tract infections.

Performance is considerably impaired as less oxygen can be absorbed into the organism due to destruction of the alveoli. Those affected also suffer more frequently from infections.

Advanced pulmonary emphysema also leads to the typical indications of lack of oxygen supply, such as blue lips and nails. Over the longer term, lung hyperinflation causes the chest to become barrel-shaped. The general condition of those affected worsens, leading to muscle wasting and right-sided heart failure.

What causes it?

Pulmonary emphysema can be caused by several factors, with smoking being the main risk factor.

The different causes lead to different parts of the lungs being affected.


Centrilobular pulmonary emphysema affects the upper part of the lung. It is believed that pollutants, such as cigarette smoke or other chemical substances, initially reach and damage the upper tissues of the lungs.

If the lower lung sections are affected in particular, this indicates a congenital defect of certain enzymes, leading to panlobular pulmonary emphysema.

After lung surgery, during which parts of the lungs are removed, the residual lung may expand excessively. This leads to distension emphysema.


A specialist doctor examines the patient for the typical indications. Noises can be heard with the stethoscope; the heartbeat is quiet. Imaging techniques such as x-rays and computed tomography provide a clear picture. Pulmonary function testing etc.


In the case of pulmonary emphysema, changes to the lungs are irreversible. However, the disease can be slowed down or stopped with the right treatment.

The following steps can be taken:

  • Stop smoking. If necessary, the doctor or a self-help group may be able to help.
  • Due to their particular susceptibility to respiratory tract infections, those affected should be vaccinated. Vaccinations against pneumococcal and influenza are recommended.
  • Bacterial infections should be treated with antibiotics.
  • Drug therapy: bronchi-expanding and anti-inflammatory substances can be inhaled.
  • In severe pulmonary emphysema, oxygen therapy also may provide relief.
  • Use of special techniques to facilitate exhalation. Specifically targeted abdominal training.
  • Inhaling a saline solution to aid expectoration.