Sufferers of respiratory illnesses must educate themselves with information specific to their disorder. But sometimes, the amount of information available is overwhelming and challenging to sort through. For example, the difference between emphysema vs COPD might not be clear.

This post will guide you through the definitions of both terms and outline the similarities in differences. Next, we’ll talk about the symptoms and diagnoses, as well as the treatment options available.

Emphysema vs COPD: Definitions

Fundamentally, the terms differ in use. COPD is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s an umbrella term that identifies chronic lung diseases that cause people to struggle with breathing. In contrast, emphysema is the name of a disease that falls under the umbrella of COPD. For example, emphysema is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, so emphysema sufferers have COPD. However, not all COPD patients have emphysema, as COPD can also encompass bronchitis, asthma, and congestive heart failure.

So, moving on to emphysema: your lungs have hundreds of millions of tiny air sacs inside them. Stretched out, they would take up the space of an entire tennis court. Luckily, instead, they serve to maximize the surface area available for gas exchange in the lungs. Waste carbon dioxide (CO2) is exchanged for fresh oxygen (O2) in the alveoli, allowing the blood to carry it throughout the body.

Emphysema destroys the alveoli, causing the lungs to have instead large spaces where the sacs would be. This decreases the total volume of gas exchange available, causing shortness of breath, poor airflow, and lowered oxygen supply to the blood. Since oxygen is the gas your body needs to stay alive, this is very detrimental to your health.

The disease happens mainly due to tobacco smoking and poor air quality. You inhale and directly expose your lungs and alveoli to thousands of toxic chemicals when you smoke a cigarette. These include heavy metals (lead and arsenic), hydrogen cyanide, and formaldehyde, which make short work of destroying delicate living tissue. We all know that smoking causes cancer, but it also causes emphysema.

While it depends on the severity of the disease with COPD, walking, putting on clothes, and exercising with emphysema can become very difficult and painful.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Respiratory diseases are diagnosed through a variety of methods. The simplest way is spirometry, which measures your breathing. An instrument records how much, how often, and how fast you breathe. Then, a doctor analyzes the results. Other methods include X-rays, CT, and MRI scans to look at the lungs and see if they’re in good shape.

Treatment of emphysema, in particular, can involve being put on supplemental oxygen for the long term. Since your lungs cannot provide the oxygen necessary, supplemental oxygen increases the amount available to them. LVRS, short for lung volume reduction surgery, can also remove damaged parts of the lungs that aren’t exchanging gas anymore.

However, COPD treatment depends on the particular disease of the patient. For asthma, bronchodilators (in inhaler form) or corticosteroids, along with other medications, can make life easier.
In either case, you have to quit smoking and improve the air quality that you breathe, indoors and outdoors.


We hope this article has given you some more insight into the differences between emphysema and COPD. However, we must note that consulting a medical professional is essential if you have trouble breathing or feeling shortness of breath.

Internal Medicine Diagnostic Center is proud to offer the highest quality of primary care in Magnolia and Houston, TX. We perform diagnostics and testing for respiratory diseases, including COPD, and are happy to help you achieve better health and treatment.

To book an appointment or consultation, please give us a call at (281) 252-8600.

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