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Emphysema vs. chronic bronchitis: Understanding the differences

Gordon Johnson, Pixabay, https://pixabay.com/users/gdj-1086657/Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are lung conditions under the term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Symptoms can be similar between the two, like shortness of breath and wheezing, but they are different conditions. Emphysema is a lung condition where the air sacs -- or alveoli -- become damaged. These air sacs supply oxygen to the blood, so when they are damaged, less oxygen can enter the blood. Chronic bronchitis is a lung condition that destroys tiny hairs, called cilia, in the airways of the lungs. The airways then become inflamed and narrower, making breathing difficult.

The symptoms of emphysema may include:

  • being short of breath during everyday activities and exercise
  • coughing daily or almost every day
  • wheezing
  • rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • barrel-shaped chest
  • fatigue
  • difficulty sleeping
  • weight loss
  • heart issues
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • wheezing
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • blueness in the fingernails, lips, or skin due to a lack of oxygen in the blood
  • crackling breathing sounds
  • swollen feet
  • heart failure
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • People may have chronic bronchitis if they have a cough that produces mucus for three months or longer per year over the course of two years.

The symptoms of chronic bronchitis may include:


Chronic bronchitis and emphysema "often occur together" and make up COPD. Smoking is a leading cause of both conditions. The American Lung Association says cigarette smoking causes as much as 90% of all COPD cases. Family history of lung disease and high exposure to toxic fumes or secondhand smoke can contribute to both. Nevertheless, both conditions make breathing harder, lead to shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and can eventually lead to heart issues.

Neither condition is curable. Treatment can manage symptoms and are similar, including bronchodilators and other steroids and medication to open airways and alleviate coughing. Oxygen can help people breathe and carry out their everyday activities. Pulmonary rehabilitation from a care team, and lifestyle changes – like stopping smoking and avoiding air pollutants and secondhand smoke -- can help systems from flaring.

Other treatments are more severe. While there is no cure except prevention (of smoking, for example), there are many tracts that may lead to some relief. For those afflicted, controlling the controllables can have a tremendous impact on quality of life.

Want to know more? Click here to read the full article in Medical News Today.