Can I Get Emphysema If I Never Smoked?

You may think of emphysema as a smoker’s disease, and you’d be largely right. Most cases of this lung condition are directly related to smoke from cigarettes, cigars, marijuana, pipes, and other similar sources.

But just because smoking accounts for the lion’s share of emphysema cases, doesn’t mean that abstaining from cigarettes makes you immune. 

Our team of lung specialists at Rockland Thoracic & Vascular Associates works with patients struggling with emphysema who have never smoked a day in their lives and are left wondering how and why they could have ended up with emphysema. Here’s how.

Damage caused by emphysema

To understand how smoking leads to emphysema and how other things might cause it as well, you need to understand what’s going on in your lungs.

When you breathe in, your lungs fill with air, but they have a legion of minions inside that actually do all the heavy lifting when it comes to gas exchange. You have about 480 million microscopic air sacs called alveoli at the ends of your bronchial tubes and lining your lung walls. 

Their job is three-fold: 

  • Keep air moving in and out
  • Take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide
  • Keep blood flowing

Ideally, your alveoli expand and contract like stretchy balloons. If your alveoli become damaged and lose their function, breathing becomes difficult and other complications come into play.

Why is emphysema known as smoker’s disease?

When smoke enters the lungs, it damages cells and tissues. In particular, it affects the walls of the lungs between the alveoli and even the alveoli themselves. These little elastic air sacs become limp and lose their shape and support. 

If the inhaled smoke has damaged the sacs, they die off and you have fewer alveoli, making it harder for your body to take in oxygen and move out carbon dioxide.

What else causes emphysema?

Knowing how smoking can lead to emphysema, it’s easy to understand that anything that damages the lining of your lungs or your alveoli can also lead to this progressive condition. Here are a few of them:

Secondhand smoke

Don’t underestimate the danger of living or working with others who smoke. The smoke they exhale mixes with the air you inhale, and it can do the same kind of damage once it’s in your lungs.

Dust on the job

If your job has you working in a dusty environment and you’re constantly breathing in particles, it can damage your lungs and cause emphysema. Some examples of occupations that could put you in danger are cotton milling, mining, woodworking, or grain milling.


Chemicals used in manufacturing plants or other businesses that produce noxious fumes can also affect your lungs. Airborne chemicals from paint, solvents, cleaning solutions, and the like all end up in your lungs.


Although car emissions and corporate waste have come a long way from the Industrial Age, there are still a lot of areas that may put you at higher risk for emphysema. Car exhaust, heating fuel, and other indoor and outdoor pollutants can all wreak havoc on your lung tissue.


Even if you manage to steer clear from all of these known culprits — and you should — we all come into contact with more than our fair share in our lifetimes. 

As you get older, your body doesn’t fight off the outside elements as easily as in your youth, and as your defenses weaken after age 40, you may start to notice signs and symptoms of emphysema, such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Managing emphysema

The first step in treating emphysema is to stop whatever started it. If you’re a smoker, quit. If you work in an unsafe environment, do your best to mitigate the amount of dust and fumes you’re exposed to by wearing a mask.

Medications can also help, as can bronchodilators, steroids, weight loss, oxygen therapy, and rehab. Here at Rockland Thoracic & Vascular Associates, this is our specialty, and we partner with you every step of the way to bring you relief from your emphysema symptoms.

Occasionally, emphysema requires more drastic measures. And if this is the case, our leading surgeons perform a lung-volume reduction surgery to remove the damaged tissue and leave you with healthy, functioning lungs that breathe much better.

If you have, or think you might have, emphysema, don’t wait to get treatment. This progressive condition can eventually lead to heart problems, collapsed lungs, or holes in your lungs. 

Call us today or request an appointment through our online system. We have offices in Englewood, New Jersey, and Pomona, Goshen, Fishkill, and the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, New York.