Emphysema vs. COPD: What’s the Difference?

Nick Rosen, MD
Medically reviewed by Nick Rosen, MDNovember 8th, 2021

Various conditions can be linked to the lungs, some being temporary and treatable and others being chronic and progressive. Because of this range, it may be difficult for people who are struggling with breathing to narrow down the specific condition or disorder causing their symptoms. This is especially true when it comes to terms like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema, two diseases that are marked by shortness of breath. Many people may think these terms are interchangeable, but that’s actually not true. Let’s explore each of these conditions and how they differ.

What Is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that makes it harder to breathe air out of the lungs. What many people don’t realize is that COPD is actually an umbrella term to describe a group of progressive lung diseases. Progressive disorders result in a general decline in health, meaning that COPD will worsen over time regardless of treatment. An estimated 15 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, and research suggests that an additional 15 million people have COPD but are undiagnosed.

What Is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; so, if you have emphysema, you have COPD. Emphysema occurs when the alveoli, or the tiny air sacs in the lungs, are damaged, causing the lungs to lose elasticity and make breathing more difficult. While shortness of breath is the main sign of emphysema, additional symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Exhaustion
  • Weight loss
  • Depression
  • Increased heart rate

How Emphysema & COPD Differentiate

While emphysema is a form of COPD, this does not mean that every person with COPD has emphysema. Some people who are diagnosed with COPD can have chronic bronchitis, which is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes. Occasionally, people who are diagnosed with COPD can have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

What Causes Emphysema & COPD?

The primary cause of emphysema and COPD is smoking cigarettes. The chemicals and toxins in cigarettes weaken your lungs’ defense against infections, cause swelling in tubes, narrow passageways, and destroy air sacs. Less common causes of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases include:

  • Exposure to air pollution
  • Breathing in secondhand smoke
  • Working with certain chemicals, dust, and fumes
  • A genetic condition called Alpha-1 deficiency
  • A history of childhood respiratory infection

Living With Emphysema or COPD

While chronic obstructive pulmonary disease cannot be reversed or cured, there are treatment options and lifestyle changes that can help people manage their symptoms. The most important change that someone can make is to quit smoking. Other steps include taking prescribed medications, exercising lightly, eating a healthy diet, avoiding secondhand smoke and air pollutants, and managing any other health conditions.

In-Home Care for COPD Exacerbations

If you have emphysema or another form of COPD, you’re probably familiar with the exacerbations, or flare-ups, that can occur. Sometimes these exacerbations are severe enough to warrant medical care, but that means you’re probably in no condition to get out of the house and drive to a doctor’s office or urgent care clinic. In these instances, you can find comfort in the fact that DispatchHealth provides in-home care.

A short time after you contact us, we can send a highly experienced team of medical professionals, including a Physician Assistant or Nurse Practitioner and a DispatchHealth Medical Technician (DHMT), to your home. We also have a physician trained in emergency medicine available at all times via phone. And if this level of care sounds costly, think again—we are in-network with most insurances and typically cost the same as a traditional urgent care visit.

Contacting DispatchHealth is easy: You can schedule an appointment through our website, on our mobile app, or over the phone.

For life-threatening and time-sensitive injuries and illnesses, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. DispatchHealth shouldn’t be used in a life-threatening emergency and doesn’t replace a primary care provider.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/copd
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/copd-vs-emphysema
  3. https://columbiasurgery.org/conditions-and-treatments/emphysema-and-chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease-copd
The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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