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COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)

Emphysema

Emphysema is a type of lung damage that can happen with COPD. On this page find out more about emphysema. 

Emphysema causes breathing difficulties. This and chronic (long-term) bronchitis are the two main conditions of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Healthy lungs are made up of millions of tiny air sacs (alveoli) with elastic walls. These are where oxygen is taken into the body and the waste gas, carbon dioxide, is expelled. Cigarette smoke and other particles you breathe in can damage the walls of these air sacs. 

If you have emphysema, the walls of the air sacs in your lungs are damaged. The sacs break apart and merge into each other, creating holes in the lung.

If you have emphysema, you can find it uncomfortable to breathe as your chest becomes hyperinflated.  This is when the damaged parts of the lung become baggy and trap air. This means when you breathe in, the damaged part of your lung inflates more and can get in the way of the healthier parts of your lung. This increase in the amount of air inside your chest is called hyperinflation. 

For some people with emphysema, lung volume reduction procedures can be a very effective form of treatment.

Diagram of lungs with emphysema

What are the different types of emphysema?

If emphysema has caused extensive damage, it is sometimes called bullous emphysema. This is because a hole in the lung bigger than 1cm is called a bulla. 

If the pattern of damage is fairly even throughout the lung, it is sometimes called homogenous emphysema. 

Where the pattern of damage is uneven, it’s called heterogeneous emphysema.

Read more about COPD, how emphysema is treated, and how it can be managed at home.

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Last medically reviewed: May 2022. Due for review: May 2025

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.