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COPD vs Emphysema

Emphysema vs COPD – Symptoms and Causes


COPD has over 15 million medical diagnoses to date around the world. Yet, many remain undiagnosed. With COPD presently being the third leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause of disability, many people are coming to learn of this disease or group of diseases. A common concern amongst the general public remains whether emphysema vs COPD is the same thing. Some people confuse the two and think they have been diagnosed with emphysema if they receive a diagnosis of COPD.

What is COPD?

COPD, short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, is an umbrella term for a group of lower respiratory diseases. The damage caused by COPD to the lungs or lower airways limits their ability to obtain sufficient oxygen for the body’s regular functions. People with COPD have difficulty breathing. Since this is a group of chronic progressive diseases, there is no way to reverse the lung damage caused. However, there are treatment methods available, that fairly reduce or prevent the worsening of these diseases.

During respiration, a person breathes in the air, which travels through the tubes into the lungs. These tubes, which serve as a passage for the air you breathe, are known as bronchial tubes in the medical dictionary. The bronchial tubes are relatively larger and divide into smaller pathways called the bronchioles, leading to the alveoli.

The alveoli are air sacs where most of the gas exchange takes place through the cell membranes of the alveoli and blood capillaries. Lung function is impaired in COPD due to damage to the bronchioles or alveoli of the lung. Damage to the alveoli or bronchioles is due to chronic inflammation, which reduces airflow through the airways. COPD is the term given to either of the two:

  • Swelling and thickening, along with mucus buildup, in the bronchial tubes
  • Inflammation and mucus accumulation in the air sacs of the lung

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a chronic progressive condition caused by targeted inflammation towards the walls of air sacs. The reduced ability of the lungs to exchange gases comes from the altered shape and elastic structure of the alveolar walls. These walls may get so weak, that they might even break, which further worsens the body’s inability to respire properly.

The lesser the surface area of the lungs, the less oxygen absorbed by the blood capillaries surrounding the alveoli. The old air (mostly carbon dioxide or CO2) is trapped inside the capillaries and unable to escape to the lungs. Similarly, the new air (with relatively higher oxygen or O2) is trapped in the lungs and unable to pass through to the blood capillaries. The multiple organs of the body get lesser oxygen than usual, and may even suffer tissue infarction.

Emphysema vs COPD

Many people ask whether emphysema and COPD are the same things. There is undoubtedly a lot of confusion regarding the connection between the two diseases. Emphysema is one of the three types of diseases categorized as COPD. The other two include chronic bronchitis and, sometimes, asthma. To understand it better, think of it as someone diagnosed with emphysema is said to have COPD but not everyone diagnosed with COPD is bound to have emphysema. For instance, a person can be diagnosed with COPD due to chronic bronchitis.

Are Emphysema And COPD The Same Thing?

While emphysema and COPD are not entirely the same, they do present with similar symptoms and have similar causes, and treatment methods. A person usually receives a diagnosis for emphysema in COPD later in life, such as in middle age or older. Chronic bronchitis in COPD, on the other hand, can be diagnosed early or later in life. This could be one way of differentiating between emphysema and the other two diseases that fall under the conditions concerned with COPD.

Causes of Emphysema and COPD

Tobacco Intake

Cigarette smoking, by far, has been concluded to be the leading cause of COPD, including emphysema. COPD is not just diagnosed in people who actively smoke cigarettes daily, but also in those who are exposed to secondhand smoking over time. Apart from tobacco cigarettes, consistent and excessive use of marijuana may also cause emphysema and other diseases of COPD.

Environmental Factors

The environmental factors contributing to the rise of COPD diagnoses include passive smoking, air pollution, chemical fumes, and working in toxic gas environments, such as cavemen working in deep tunnels of earth. The Chernobyl nuclear incident of 1986 has been known to affect a large population, of whom many were diagnosed with emphysema.

Genetic Factors

Contrary to popular belief, people may develop COPD and emphysema without having a history of cigarette smoking or being exposed to pollutants. Some cases of COPD and emphysema are hereditary, in which the genetic mutation passes on to their children. A genetic cause of emphysema is known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD). This type of emphysema involves protease-related damage to the lungs and liver.

Symptoms of Emphysema and COPD

The similarities between emphysema vs COPD extend from their cause to the symptoms they present. While providing a diagnosis of emphysema or other types of COPD based solely on the symptoms presented is uncommon, there may be a potential case of COPD if the first symptoms appear during any physical activity. COPD vs emphysema may look like one or more of the following:

  • A chronic cough (often also producing clear, white, green, or yellow mucus)
  • Blue lips
  • Blue nail bed
  • Chest tightness
  • Frequent colds or respiratory infections
  • Low energy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Swelling or edema in lower extremities

The symptoms of COPD or emphysema take a while to appear. In some cases, they may occur only after a significant amount of damage has been done to the lungs.

When to See a Doctor

Knowing when to seek medical attention in cases of COPD and emphysema may be tricky. Since the onset of symptoms occurs at a later stage, it is unlikely to be able to diagnose emphysema vs COPD at early stages. If you are facing any of the above-mentioned symptoms, you should visit your doctor.

For patients who have already received a diagnosis for either of the two conditions and present with the following symptoms during ongoing treatment, we suggest scheduling an appointment with your doctor today.

  • Bloody mucus or sputum
  • Changes in mucus or sputum amount, color, or thickness
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Fever, often in addition to flu-like symptoms
  • Headaches or dizziness, which is most frequent in the morning
  • Increased coughing and/or wheezing
  • More frequent breathlessness
  • Swelling of feet or ankles does not go away after elevating your feet during sleep
  • Unexplained severe weakness


The best way to prevent emphysema and other COPD conditions is to adopt a healthy lifestyle and habits. This may involve quitting smoking or not taking up this habit in the first place, minimizing workplace exposure to pollutants by wearing protective gear, such as a mask, etc.

At HG Analytics, we have hired medical professionals to answer all your queries regarding any COPD condition. If you or your loved ones are presenting with any of the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder or emphysema, schedule an appointment with our healthcare analysts today! We offer routine respiratory screenings, among other things, to put your worries at rest.

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