Emphysema is a lung disease that gets worse over time. It gradually destroys the air sacs in the lungs, making it harder to breathe. Emphysema, combined with chronic bronchitis, is referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Emphysema causes gaping holes in the air sacs, reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches the blood. It also destroys the elastic fibers that hold open the small airways that lead to the air sacs. A person with emphysema exhales as if something is blocking the flow of air. Many people with emphysema can have oxygen levels so low that they get short of breath walking or doing simple tasks.

Smoking is the leading cause of emphysema, and while treatment slows its progression, there is no cure. Quitting smoking will reduce the disease's progression. Doctors use various tests to determine the stage of emphysema in a patient in order to prescribe the best treatment. The severity and progression of the condition is measured based on the amount of air a person with emphysema can forcefully exhale in one second.


The UAB Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine has consistently been recognized among the best programs of its kind by U.S. News & World Report, and it is widely known for its treatment and research of airway diseases, especially chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema. Our medical team includes nationally recognized pulmonologists, advanced practice nurses, respiratory therapists, exercise physiologists, physiatrists, physical therapists, and other professionals who provide the compassionate care you deserve.

UAB Medicine offers a unique treatment path for patients with COPD. At our dedicated Pulmonary Clinic, patients receive a comprehensive evaluation, a complete treatment plan, and state-of-the-art therapy. For your convenience, a nurse practitioner manages patient care and is available for patient phone calls and care of sick patients during office visits. We consider patient education to be a priority in your care. Patients who are admitted to UAB Hospital (including UAB Hospital-Highlands) with a COPD diagnosis may be enrolled in a care management project that provides enhanced discharge planning services to help manage your condition after your return home. In addition, the UAB Lung Health Center offers new drugs and therapies through clinical research studies, and advanced treatments such as bronchoscopic lung volume reduction and lung transplantation are available to qualified patients.

In some people, a genetic condition can contribute to their lung disease, and UAB may be able to help. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, or simply alpha-1, is a genetic disorder that can result in serious lung diseases such as emphysema and COPD, as well as liver disease. People with these conditions, along with healthy people who know they have alpha-1 in their family, should be tested to see if they have this genetic condition. Alpha-1 testing can be performed by most primary care physicians and pulmonologists. Treatments, including weekly protein infusions, are available for individuals who test positive for alpha-1. These therapies work to slow or prevent further damage to the lungs and overall health. People with alpha-1 can self-refer to UAB Medicine’s Alpha-1 Clinic, a Clinical Resource Center recognized by the Alpha-1 Foundation.








Low-Dose CT Screening for Lung Cancer

Low-dose CT (computed tomography) screening for lung cancer is a way of finding tumors before they become too advanced and become difficult to treat successfully. This screening method has been shown to reduce the risk of death from lung cancer in high-risk patients by 20% compared to chest X-ray alone. However, many lung nodules (growths) detected from the low-dose CT screening are not cancerous, so follow-up CT scans or other tests may be needed to determine the presence of cancer.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual screening for lung cancer with low-dose CT scans in adults age 55-80 who have a 30-pack-per-year smoking history and currently smoke or quit within the last 15 years. Medicare approved screening for patients age 55-77, and this is the age group that UAB Medicine provides screening for. Screening is stopped once a person has not smoked for 15 years, develops a health problem that seriously limits life expectancy, or does not wish to have lung surgery. The CT scan itself lasts only about 20 seconds. Patients being screened are asked to hold their breath for a few seconds as the scan is performed. All patients must be referred for the test by a physician after a shared decision-making appointment. It is important that a responsible health care provider manages follow-up care for patients with a positive test.

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UAB is an active participant in research and clinical trials for the diagnosis and treatment of emphysema. We encourage you to speak to your physician about research and clinical trial options and browse the link below for more information.

View Clinical Trials