Emphysema is a chronic lung condition. While many factors can contribute to the development of emphysema, smoking is one of the main risk factors.

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Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The condition affects approximately 14 million people in the United States.

Not only does smoking increase the chances of developing COPD, but it can also increase the chances of the condition being fatal.

People can make certain lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking or avoiding exposure to air pollutants, to reduce their risk of developing emphysema.

In this article, we discuss the risk factors for emphysema, including how a person can reduce their risk and when to seek medical attention.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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The most common risk factor for the development of emphysema is cigarette smoking.

According to the American Lung Association, female smokers are 13 times more likely to die from COPD than female nonsmokers. A similar pattern is also seen in male smokers: They are 12 times more likely than male nonsmokers to die from COPD.

Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 harmful chemicals that can cause damage to the body and lungs. Some examples include:

  • nicotine
  • lead
  • ammonia
  • carcinogens, substances that can cause cancer

The release of toxic chemicals can have many effects on the lungs, including:

  • weakening the lung’s natural defenses, such as the response against infections
  • destruction of alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs
  • causing inflammation and swelling that can narrow air passages

A 2022 systematic review also indicates that secondhand smoke, or when a person indirectly inhales cigarette smoke, can also increase the risk of emphysema.

Long-term exposure to air pollution can play a role in the development of emphysema. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that air pollution causes around 43% of COPD deaths globally.

Ozone air pollution, specifically, has links to causing more emphysema-like changes to the lungs. Emissions from chemical plants, refineries, and cars can cause ozone air pollution.

Using certain polluting fuels — for example, when using stoves for cooking — and technologies in the home may generate small, harmful particles that can enter and damage the lungs. These can include:

  • carbon monoxide
  • nitrogen oxides
  • formaldehyde
  • many other toxic chemicals

People with certain specific occupations may have a higher risk of developing COPD, likely because of prolonged exposure to dust, fumes, or toxic chemicals.

A few of the at-risk occupations include:

  • farmworkers
  • vehicle mechanics and repairs workers
  • material-moving equipment workers
  • non-construction laborers
  • hospitality cleaning and maintenance staff

Having alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD) can predispose someone to develop emphysema or COPD.

This condition has associations with the SERPINA1 gene, which codes for a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT). Changes to the SERPINA1 gene can lead to A1AD. However, variations in this gene rarely cause COPD, accounting for less than 1% of all COPD cases.

Scientists have yet to find other genetic mutations that can lead to emphysema. Others may likely exist.

The prevalence of COPD is two to three times higher in people aged 60 and over. This is likely due to an age-associated decline in the function and structure of the lungs, which can make a person more susceptible to COPD. Additional years of smoking also play a role.

Learn more about the link between age and COPD here.

Doctors may recommend certain measures that can help reduce a person’s risk of developing emphysema. These can include:

Quitting smoking

One of the most effective ways to prevent COPD is to quit smoking or never start smoking.

It can take a great deal of effort to quitting smoking, but many methods exist to help make it easier. For example, nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) aims to reduce cravings.

Seeking help from friends, family members, or support groups can also be beneficial.

Learn more about quitting smoking here.

Avoiding exposure to irritants

Whenever possible, a person can try to avoid inhaling chemical fumes, dust, or secondhand smoke.

While some occupations are more likely to expose someone to harmful substances, some measures can help reduce potential exposure. For example, a person can ensure appropriate protective wear is worn at all times.

Learn more about preventing complications if someone already has COPD.

If a person has any symptoms of COPD, it is recommended they talk with their doctor. COPD symptoms can include:

  • shortness of breath while performing daily activities
  • chronic cough
  • coughs that produce a lot of mucus
  • wheezing
  • chest tightness

Learn more about the symptoms of emphysema here.

Early detection and treatment can prevent it from becoming severe or life threatening. Urgent medical attention may be necessary if someone experiences more severe symptoms, such as difficulty talking or catching their breath.

Emphysema is a lung condition and a type of COPD. While many factors can contribute to the development of emphysema, cigarette smoking is a major risk factor.

Other factors include genetics, occupational exposure, air pollution, age, and other respiratory infections. Making certain lifestyle changes can reduce a person’s risk of emphysema.