The Relationship Between Addiction And Emphysema

Emphysema is a serious lung disease that kills more than 120,000 Americans every year. While not all cases of emphysema are caused by substance abuse or addiction, a very significant number of cases are.

The Lungs

Air flows through the trachea (windpipe), down through the bronchial tubes, and into the lungs; then it gets absorbed by the alveoli (tiny air sacs). The alveoli expand as one breathes in and transfer the oxygen into the blood. They then compress to force out the remaining carbon dioxide. Healthy lungs contain around 300 million alveoli; they are responsible for allowing us to breathe normally.


This lung disease damages the alveoli and reduces their ability to fully expand and contract to move air. As alveoli are destroyed, bronchial tubes that lead to them lose structural support and begin to collapse. As these key parts of the lungs fail, air gets stuck in the lungs; this gives people with emphysema a barrel-chested appearance. This condition helps make up chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Over 3 million Americans suffer from emphysema, and 11 million have a disease associated with COPD.

The driving factor behind the damage is a loss of elasticity. The lungs need to expand and contract in order to receive new oxygen. When someone is suffering from emphysema, it means the tissue in their alveoli is no longer as elastic due to damage from irritation. Without the ability to stretch and return to normal size, the alveoli can’t effectively receive and absorb oxygen; this leads to a number of symptoms.

Emphysema Symptoms

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Chronic fatigue

The Cause

While emphysema can arise from genetic predisposition and environmental conditions, it is most commonly linked with smoking tobacco.


Smoking tobacco is the primary culprit in the occurrence of this condition in the US. Not all smokers suffer from the disease, but around 50% show signs of obstructions in their lungs. Inhaling smoke in any capacity can damage the lungs, but exposure to cigarette smoke is especially dangerous.

The billions of tiny particles that make up cigarette smoke can’t be seen with the naked eye. This mixture of irritating particles enters the lungs and causes inflammation, leading to serious long-term damage. The regular exposure of someone with a smoking habit irritates the alveoli in the lungs and eventually starts destroying them, leading to the large air pockets in the lungs.

Cigarettes and tobacco products remain the number one cause of preventable death in the United States. Quitting smoking is the most effective way to prevent the development of lung cancer. If you need support to help you quit smoking, you may find that online therapy provides the right amount of care and flexibility you need to successfully stop.

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Other Drugs

The legal availability and extremely addictive nature of cigarettes puts them at the top of the list of causes, but other substances can cause emphysema as well. Researchers have found that people who burn and smoke Cocaine, Crack Cocaine, and Heroin also experience increased rates of emphysema.

Heroin seems the most linked to the development of emphysema in people using illegal substances. The exact reason isn’t fully understood, but imperfections in the Heroin could cause irritation similar to the kind caused by cigarettes.


As Marijuana becomes more common throughout the US, researchers are making a more concerted effort to study its effects; the study of its long-term effects is particularly of interest. Many studies have centered around observing the impact smoking Marijuana has on the lungs, but no major conclusive evidence has been discovered. Many of the studies ran into issues because their sampled population often smoked cigarettes alongside Marijuana. Concurrent use of cigarettes obscures the effects of Marijuana use; researchers already know that cigarettes predispose people to emphysema.

Other studies found that, while Marijuana wasn’t linked directly to emphysema, smoking Marijuana did cause some irritation throughout the lungs. It wasn’t enough to destroy tissue, but no inflammation is good inflammation when it comes to the lungs.

Emphysema And Addiction

Cigarette smoking is at the top of the list of addictive habits. Nicotine itself is recognized as one of the most addictive chemicals on the planet, and the near ubiquitous availability throughout most places in the world is staggering considering the health concerns associated with them.

If you or a loved one struggles with a substance use disorder (SUD) that may be causing pain in the form of a lung disorder, contact a treatment provider today. They can help you to explore available treatment options.