Common Risk Factors for Emphysema

Every time you take a breath and you fill your lungs with air, oxygen transfers from the air to your blood, while carbon dioxide (gas waste) leaves your blood and enters your lungs so you can expel it when you exhale. 

This seemingly simple gas exchange is actually quite complex. Any condition that affects this process or its individual parts can sabotage your ability to breathe.

Emphysema is one of those conditions.

At Rockland Thoracic & Vascular Associates, our team of specialists helps our patients manage their emphysema symptoms and live active lives. 

But we’d much rather help you avoid the disease altogether. Most cases of emphysema are preventable. Here, we take a closer look at the lifestyle choices and circumstances that might put you in emphysema’s line of fire.

Emphysema 411

As a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema damages the air sacs in your lungs — or more specifically, the walls of the air sacs. As they get weaker over time, some of them burst and create large spaces for inhaled air instead of multiple small spaces. 

Fewer walls means less surface area and decreased gas exchange. The bottom line is, emphysema reduces the amount of oxygen that gets into your bloodstream.

It also makes it hard to breathe in and out. Old air gets trapped, and fresh air has nowhere to go, so you can only take shallow breaths. You may also develop a chronic cough called bronchitis, another form of COPD that inflames your airway tubes.

Top risk factors for emphysema

Although there’s a rare protein deficiency that can cause emphysema, it most often develops when you’ve been exposed to toxic chemicals that irritate and damage your lung tissue, so certain environments and habits can make you more likely to get the disease. 

Here are the most common risk factors for emphysema.


Smoking is the No. 1 cause of emphysema. It’s responsible for 80% of all cases. And it’s not just cigarette smoke; pipe, cigar, and marijuana smokers also run the risk of lung damage. 

The damage accumulates over the years, so the longer you smoke, the higher your chances of developing emphysema.

Second-hand smoke

Living or working with people who smoke also increases your risk for emphysema. The same chemicals they inhale with each puff also enter your lungs.

Industrial fumes

If you work in an industrial environment that produces toxic chemicals, you’re at risk for emphysema. The particles from the manufacturing process enter your lungs and have the potential to damage the delicate tissues.


Simply living in New York or New Jersey puts you at risk for emphysema. Exhaust from cars, buses, and trucks is inescapable. But pollution doesn’t only occur outside. Your office may have invisible fumes from heating and cooling systems. 


If any of these risk factors apply to you, then age becomes a factor as well. Your likelihood of developing emphysema increases the longer you’re exposed to the irritants. In fact, you may have emphysema for a while without knowing it. Symptoms tend to show up only after the damage has been done. 

Emphysema 911

There’s no cure for emphysema, and the damage it’s caused can’t be undone. But we have treatments that can make living with emphysema easier.

The first step is to avoid the lung irritants that caused the emphysema. If you smoke, quit. If you live or work around other chemicals, talk to our team about ways to mitigate your exposure.

Because eating and breathing are so difficult with emphysema, proper nutrition and pulmonary rehabilitation are keys to your emphysema treatment. We can help you learn to eat and breathe better to prevent unwanted weight loss, nutrient deficiencies, and health issues related to a sedentary lifestyle.

Bronchodilators, steroids, and oxygen therapy each address your shortness of breath and help you keep your oxygen levels up. Our team advises you about the best options for your specific case. 

If a significant portion of your lung tissue is damaged, lung-volume reduction surgery might be the best approach.

Left unchecked, emphysema can quickly become an emergency. Seek immediate medical attention if:

  • You can’t catch your breath
  • You can’t climb stairs
  • You’re cognitively impaired
  • Your fingernails or lips turn gray or blue 

You can avoid these extreme symptoms by teaming up with us. Call or click to schedule an appointment at any of our locations, and take steps to prevent or control emphysema today. 

Our offices are in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, Pomona, Goshen, and Fishkill, New York, and in Englewood, New Jersey.