The Difference Between COPD and Emphysema

Blossoms on the trees, green grass, and sprouting flowers are all staples of the spring season, and just thinking about them makes you want to breathe in the fresh spring air. Of course, taking in those deep breaths of fresh air is easier for some than others. People with COPD or emphysema will find it more difficult to breathe than those with a healthy respiratory system. But what’s the difference between COPD and emphysema?

COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an overarching term that can include many different diseases of the lungs such as bronchiectasis, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. COPD interferes with normal breathing and is usually permanent and progressive, meaning that the disease stays with you your entire life and gets more severe over time. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can cause a number of symptoms including shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, chest pains, and the over-production of mucus in the airways.

The term COPD often includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

There are four different stages of COPD which are measured by forced expiratory volume, or the amount of air that your lungs displace during a forced breath. In the first stage, forced expiratory volume will be above 80%. By the final stage, the forced expiratory volume is below 35%.

Emphysema is included under COPD, but the two are not synonymous. For example, a patient can be diagnosed with COPD without having emphysema, and could instead be suffering from chronic bronchitis.

With emphysema, your lungs are damaged beyond repair. Emphysema can affect either the walls between the air sacs in your lungs, or the air sacs themselves. This results in fewer and larger air sacs rather than the many small air sacs that your lungs are supposed to have.

The number one cause of COPD, including emphysema, is cigarette smoking. A majority of people who are diagnosed with COPD smoke or used to smoke. While there are other causes of COPD than smoking – such as air pollutants, chemical fumes, dust, and other lung irritants – the fact that smoking is the main cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease means that it is largely preventable. At the very least, you significantly decrease your chances of COPD by not smoking.