Emphysema vs COPD

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has a master's degree in cancer biology and has taught high school and college biology.

This lesson is going to give you some insight into the lungs and their function. We will discuss two diseases that are closely intertwined that cause damage to the lungs.

Our Lungs

We use them all day and night, every day of our lives. They are one of the critical players in keeping us alive. They are so critical that every other organ in the body, including the heart and brain, depend on them to carry-out their function flawlessly. Have you figured it out yet? Hopefully, you guessed the lungs. The lungs are the organs that are responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the body and the outside environment.

The lungs get oxygen for the rest of the body
Diagram of normal lung

They are responsible for putting oxygen in our bloodstream so that it can be transported out to every part of our bodies. When the organs in our bodies don't get the oxygen they need, then the tissues of the organs die, and the organ stops functioning. So, we really need the lungs to work properly at all times. There are of course times when this doesn't happen due to various diseases and conditions that may attack the lungs. This lesson will look at one of those diseases: COPD.


One disease that may affect the lungs is COPD, which is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This is a lung disease that gets worse over time and is caused by something blocking or obstructing the airways and/or lungs. The blockage makes breathing very difficult and usually causes a deficiency in the amount of oxygen available to the organs of the body.

COPD is caused by blockages in the airways and lungs
Diagram of lungs with COPD

There are two main types of COPD. One type is chronic bronchitis, the inflammation of the bronchi and bronchioles for at least 3 months at a time over the course of at least 2 years. The inflammation in chronic bronchitis narrows the airways and the build-up of mucus seen in chronic bronchitis fills the narrowed opening leading to an obstruction of the airway. The other type is Emphysema.


Emphysema is a disease that causes damage to the alveoli - the air sacs of the lungs that carry-out lung function - and lung tissue. It is also gets progressively worse over time.

Emphysema is a type of COPD
Diagram of emphysema

The damage is also accompanied by the build-up of mucus and inflammation in the lungs and close airways which creates an obstruction, just like the chronic bronchitis. For that reason, emphysema is the other main type of COPD.

Symptoms and Complications

The symptoms are identical in both of these conditions since emphysema is a type of COPD. The symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, phlegm, and periodic chest pain. There currently isn't a cure for either condition, and the damage developed in both emphysema and COPD are permanent. They are, however, treatable to prevent further damage and complications.

The most obvious complication would be the complete loss of lung function in one or both lungs. This is the point when you will need supplemental oxygen. The lack of oxygen in the body can potentially lead to a heart attack or stroke since the heart and brain will be deprived of oxygen. At this point, the real possibility of death as a complication increases.

Lesson Summary

We learned quite a bit about both of these diseases that attack the lungs. The lungs are the organs that are responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the body and the outside environment.

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