a man suffering from an emphysema risk factor

Emphysema Risk Factors

Emphysema is a serious respiratory problem that can make breathing difficult. Patients who have this condition often cannot work or engage in many of their favorite activities. Although a number of treatments are now available, those who suffer with this condition may have reduced quality of life because of breathing problems. A number of risk factors have been identified related to this medical condition.


Although emphysema develops over years, lung damage may be evident by the ages of 40 to 60. Individuals may experience shortness of breath during activity, blue color in nails and lips upon exertion, and a feeling of mental fogginess. The symptoms may be minor in the early stages and worsen over time.


Smoking is one of the primary causes of emphysema. The condition most often develops in people who smoke cigarette, but pipe and cigar tobacco can also raise risks. The risk of developing emphysema increases with the length of tobacco use and the amount used. Chronic marijuana smoking can also lead to emphysema. Those who smoke should use smoking cessation programs and nicotine replacement aids to help them quit and avoid this illness.

Secondhand Smoke

Exposure to secondhand smoke is another risk for emphysema. Those individuals who work in smoke-filled environments, such as bars or restaurants, are at high risk for this condition. Although many cities have limited smoking in these types of establishments, some areas of the country still may allow smoking, putting workers at risk. Avoiding closed areas where smoke can linger can help you to avoid damage from secondhand smoke.

Occupational Hazards

People who work in industrial environments that create dust or chemical gases are at high risk for emphysema. Industries that work with grains, wood, cotton products, or caustic chemicals increase the risk for this condition. Mine workers are also at risk. While a risk factor in and of itself, smoking in combination with working in these industries is strongly discouraged. Using respiratory protection equipment can help to protect workers in these environments.


Individuals who live in areas of the country with high levels of constant pollution are at higher risk for getting emphysema. The constant presence of particulate matter in the air causes damage to the small air sacs, called alveoli, in the lungs. These air sacs can rupture, which causes inadequate lung capacity. Using air filtration systems at home and work can help to limit the damage from pollution.

Genetic Factors

Some people are born without a particular biochemical called alpha-1-antitrypsin. The deficiency of this chemical leaves the lungs vulnerable to damage, and emphysema can often result. People who have this deficiency develop symptoms between the ages of 20 and 50. They may have difficulty breathing on exertion, weight loss, a barking cough, and a barrel-shaped chest that is characteristic of emphysema. Early detection and treatment can help to limit the progression of the disease in these patients.

Last Updated: December 08, 2016