What is emphysema? Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that causes destruction of the air sacs in the lungs, resulting in reduced lung capacity and difficulty breathing. Emphysema is a common respiratory disorder in the United States: about 3.7 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with it. It is the third most common cause of death in American adults. People over 45 years of age are most likely to develop emphysema (Source: ALA). Smoking is the most common cause of emphysema, and the risk of emphysema increases the longer you smoke. Rarely, nonsmokers develop emphysema as the result of an inherited deficiency in alpha-1 antitrypsin, a protein made by the liver that helps protect lung tissue. Risk factors that can increase your risk of emphysema include exposure to secondhand smoke, chemical fumes, dust, and air pollution. The characteristic symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath, which develops slowly over time and can become severe. Treatment for emphysema includes smoking cessation therapy, bronchodilators, anti-inflammatory drugs, and pulmonary rehabilitation to improve shortness of breath with coughing and breathing exercises. Healthy lifestyle practices, such as washing your hands well, exercising regularly, avoiding respiratory irritants and cold air, and refraining from smoking, can slow the progression of the disease and decrease the risk of complications. In some cases, emphysema can be associated with serious or life-threatening symptoms. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for severe difficulty breathing, bluish lips or fingernails, change in level of consciousness or alertness, and rapid heart rate. Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for emphysema but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.