Updated on February 6, 2024
5 min read

The Relationship Between Addiction and Emphysema

Addiction and Emphysema

Emphysema is a lung disorder that occurs when the alveoli (lung sacs) become damaged. The condition causes small spaces to form on the inner walls of the lungs. 

These eventually weaken and rupture, creating less surface area and preventing sufficient oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. Old air gets trapped in the alveoli and there is less room for fresh, oxygen-rich air to enter.

Someone with emphysema has COPD, but not everyone with COPD has emphysema. Many people with emphysema also have bronchitis, which causes a chronic cough. Together, emphysema and bronchitis are called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. 

Addiction, particularly to cigarettes, is a cause of COPD. It also worsens emphysema.

How is Drug Addiction Linked to Emphysema?

Although some people think of illicit drugs when it comes to addiction, many legal substances also pose a risk. Tobacco cigarettes are the most common example. Cigarette smoking is the primary cause of emphysema and one of the world’s most common addictions. 

Although not every smoker develops emphysema, half of all smokers show signs of lung obstruction. Inhaling any type of smoke causes lung damage, but cigarette smoke is especially dangerous.

Despite the legality and commonality of cigarette smoking, it is an addiction that poses a significant health risk for the smoker and those around them. Addiction support and recovery resources are available if you or a loved one is addicted to cigarettes. 

Quitting smoking, at any point in your life, significantly reduces your risk of developing emphysema and a wide variety of other serious health concerns.

In addition to cigarette smoke, people who smoke or burn cocaine, crack cocaine, and heroin also have a higher risk of developing emphysema.


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Does Marijuana Cause Emphysema?

There is ongoing research concerning the potential link between emphysema and marijuana smoke. 

So far, there is no conclusive evidence that marijuana poses a significant risk. 

Many studies include people who smoke both marijuana and tobacco cigarettes, making it difficult to link any health problems to marijuana. The use of cigarettes conceals any effects of marijuana.1

Other studies revealed that while marijuana irritates and causes inflammation in the lungs, it is not directly linked to marijuana because it doesn't destroy lung tissue.2

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Some people have emphysema for years before they develop any symptoms. 

Over time, they will begin to experience shortness of breath. However, it isn’t until this shortness of breath begins to interfere with daily activities that people realize there is a problem. 

Advanced emphysema causes someone to feel out of breath even when they are at rest.

Because emphysema develops gradually, it’s important to take the early symptoms seriously.

You should see a doctor if you experience:

  • Shortness of breath during mild to moderate exertion like climbing the stairs
  • Blue or gray lips or fingernails
  • Mental fog with no other explanation


The primary cause of emphysema is long-term inhalation of irritants, including:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Marijuana smoke
  • Chemical fumes or dust
  • Air pollution

These irritants, particularly cigarette smoke, cause microscopic particles to be released into the air. When inhaled, these particles enter the lungs and cause inflammation.

There are rare instances in which emphysema develops due to an inherited protein deficiency. This is classified as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency emphysema. 

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5 Risk Factors

Several things increase the risk of developing emphysema. These include:


This is the most significant and most controllable risk factor for emphysema. Cigarette smokers have the highest risk of developing the condition. Cigar, pipe, and marijuana smokers also face an increased risk. The longer someone smokes, and the amount they smoke, further increases that risk.

Secondhand smoke

Unfortunately, people who do not smoke but who are exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke face a higher risk of developing emphysema. Again, the longer you are exposed (and the degree of exposure) affects your risk.

Exposure to fumes or dust

People exposed to certain dust or chemicals while working face a heightened risk of emphysema. This includes irritants from cotton, grain, wood, and mining products. This risk is compounded for smokers.


Emphysema tends to develop for long-term smokers between the ages of 40 and 60. The older someone is, the greater their risk of developing the condition, especially if their exposure to irritants continues.

Exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants

Even if someone does not work around dangerous chemicals or dust, it’s still possible to have an increased risk of emphysema. Exposure to car exhaust, heating fuel, and various other pollutants increases the risk of emphysema.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Any time you experience unexplained breathing problems, it’s important to see a doctor. Breathing problems are linked to a variety of health issues, many of which are serious.

Keep in mind, symptoms of emphysema develop gradually. If you have a high risk of developing the condition, it’s a good idea to undergo regular exams even if you don’t have any symptoms.

It’s also important to be open and honest about cigarette usage when you discuss your health with your doctor. This increases the likelihood of an accurate diagnosis.

Tests used to diagnose emphysema and/or COPD include:

  • Lung function test that measures the amount of air inhaled and exhaled
  • CT scan to rule out other issues
  • Chest x-ray to detect pneumonia and other possible conditions
  • Arterial blood gas analysis to measure how well your lungs take oxygen

The best thing you can do to reduce your risk of emphysema is to give up habits that increase your risk. 

You might not be able to change your job that exposes you to chemical irritants, but you have complete control over whether you smoke. 

Smoking cessation and drug addiction programs can help you identify the root cause of your addiction. You also learn better ways of coping with the issues that caused you to become addicted.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
7 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Ribeiro, Luis IG, and Philip W Ind. “Effect of Cannabis Smoking on Lung Function and Respiratory Symptoms: A Structured Literature Review.” Npj Primary Care Respiratory Medicine, vol. 26, no. 1, 20 Oct. 2016, 10.1038/npjpcrm.2016.71.

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What Are Marijuana’s Effects on Lung Health?” Drugabuse.gov, 2018.

  3. Mayo Clinic. “Emphysema - Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 2017.

  4. Drug-Induced Pulmonary Disease: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” Medlineplus.gov, 2016.

  5. Wolff, Armand J., and Anne E. O’Donnell. “Pulmonary Effects of Illicit Drug Use.” Clinics in Chest Medicine, vol. 25, no. 1, 1 Mar. 2004, pp. 203–216, 10.1016/S0272-523100137-0.

  6. Joshi, Manish, et al. “Marijuana and Lung Diseases.” Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine, vol. 20, no. 2, Mar. 2014, pp. 173–179, 10.1097/mcp.0000000000000026.

  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Addiction and Health.” Drugabuse.gov, 2018. 

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