The early signs of emphysema include shortness of breath, cough and wheezing, according to WebMD. Shortness of breath is the most common. Individuals with the disease may first notice a problem when they are short of breath during an activity, such as walking up the stairs, that they once considered routine.
Emphysema is a progressive disease that develops slowly. Smoking is the usual cause, states WebMD. People with emphysema have difficulty exhaling. The disease breaks down the lining between the air sacs in the lungs leaving pockets that trap air. The lungs become larger with emphysema, and breathing becomes progressively more difficult.
Quitting smoking helps to slow the progression of the disease, notes WebMD. As the condition grows worse, the emphysema patient often develops a barrel chest to accommodate the increased lung volume. The tips of the fingers club due to poor oxygen circulation in the body. With severe emphysema, the patient begins to breathe rapidly using pursed lips to increase the oxygen to the lungs.
In order to increase the amount of oxygen reaching its tissues, the body begins producing additional red blood cells as the disease advances. Even with these modifications, the amount of oxygen in the blood is often low while the carbon dioxide levels are high, reports WebMD. The patient's lips develop a blue tinge and the muscles start wasting away due to malnutrition.