Centrilobular Emphysema- A Comprehensive Overview Vector

Centrilobular Emphysema: A Comprehensive Overview (2024)

by | Updated: Jun 4, 2024

Centrilobular emphysema, a predominant subtype of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a pulmonary condition characterized by the enlargement and destruction of the alveoli located centrally in the secondary pulmonary lobules.

This article breaks down the pathophysiology, causes, and clinical manifestations of centrilobular emphysema.

Drawing from the latest research and clinical findings, we aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of this condition, its implications on respiratory health, and the available therapeutic interventions. 

What is Centrilobular Emphysema?


Centrilobular emphysema is a subtype of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It primarily affects the upper lobes of the lungs and targets the central part of the secondary pulmonary lobules. The condition results in enlargement and destruction of the alveoli, reducing the surface area for gas exchange. Smoking is the most common cause, leading to breathlessness and decreased lung function over time.

Centrilobular Emphysema Illustration Graphic

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of centrilobular emphysema, as with other types of emphysema, include:

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea): Especially during physical activities.
  • Chronic cough: Often without mucus.
  • Wheezing: A high-pitched whistling sound when breathing.
  • Barrel chest: Due to the air trapped in the lungs.
  • Decreased exercise tolerance: Due to difficulty breathing.
  • Frequent respiratory infections: Due to a susceptible respiratory system.
  • Chest tightness: Associated with difficulty breathing.
  • Cyanosis: A bluish tint to the skin or lips due to low oxygen levels.
  • Weight loss: In advanced cases.
  • Decreased lung sounds: On auscultation.

Note: Over time, symptoms can progress and exacerbate, leading to further complications.


Diagnosing centrilobular emphysema involves a combination of clinical assessment, imaging, and pulmonary function tests.

Here’s how it’s typically diagnosed:

  • Medical History and Physical Examination: The physician will take a detailed history to understand the onset and progression of symptoms and to ascertain any history of smoking or exposure to respiratory irritants.
  • Spirometry: This pulmonary function test measures the amount and speed of air a patient can inhale and exhale. It helps to assess the degree of obstruction in the airways.
  • Chest X-ray: While chest X-rays might not always show emphysema until it’s severe, they can rule out other conditions and show hyperinflation of the lungs.
  • High-resolution Computed Tomography (HRCT) Scan: This imaging modality provides detailed images of the lungs and can identify the characteristic patterns of centrilobular emphysema.
  • Arterial Blood Gas Analysis This test measures the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, providing information about the lungs’ ability to move oxygen into the bloodstream and remove carbon dioxide from the bloodstream.
  • Oximetry: A non-invasive method to monitor the oxygen level in the blood.
  • Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency Testing: This is performed if there’s a suspicion of genetic predisposition to emphysema.
  • Differential Diagnosis: It’s important to differentiate centrilobular emphysema from other conditions that may present similarly, like chronic bronchitis, asthma, or other types of emphysema.

Once the tests and imaging are done, a pulmonologist can typically make a definitive diagnosis and recommend an appropriate treatment plan.


The treatment for centrilobular emphysema primarily focuses on symptom relief, slowing disease progression, and improving quality of life.

Here’s a rundown of common treatments:

  • Bronchodilators: These medications relax the muscles around the airways, making breathing easier. They can be short-acting (for quick relief) or long-acting (for maintenance).
  • Inhaled Steroids: These reduce inflammation in the airways, but long-term use might have side effects, so they are typically reserved for patients with frequent exacerbations.
  • Combination Inhalers: These contain both a bronchodilator and a steroid.
  • Oxygen Therapy: For patients with low oxygen levels in their blood, supplemental oxygen can be provided through nasal prongs or masks.
  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation: This comprehensive program combines exercise training, nutrition advice, and disease management training to help patients increase their endurance and function.
  • Vaccinations: Annual flu shots and pneumococcal vaccines are recommended to reduce the risk of respiratory infections.
  • Antibiotics: Used to treat bacterial infections that can exacerbate emphysema.
  • Lung Volume Reduction Surgery: In select cases, removing damaged tissue from the upper lungs can help the remaining lung tissue work more effectively and improve breathing.
  • Lung Transplant: In severe cases where other treatments are ineffective, a lung transplant may be an option.
  • Quitting Smoking: The most crucial step in halting the progression of the disease.
  • Avoiding Respiratory Irritants: Such as dust, chemicals, and pollution.
  • Physical Activity: To maintain lung function and overall health.
  • Mucolytics: Medications that thin the mucus, making it easier to clear from the airways.
  • Bullectomy: A surgical procedure to remove large air-filled spaces (bullae) from the lungs, which can improve breathing in certain patients.

Remember: Regular follow-ups with a pulmonologist are essential to monitor the disease’s progression and adjust treatments as needed. It’s also beneficial for patients to be educated about their condition and self-management strategies.


Centrilobular emphysema, like other forms of emphysema, develops due to damage to the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs.

Several factors can lead to this damage:

  • Cigarette Smoking: The primary and most significant risk factor. Tobacco smoke causes irritation and inflammation in the lungs, leading to the breakdown of the alveolar walls over time.
  • Exposure to Air Pollutants: Chronic exposure to environmental pollutants, such as industrial dust, chemical fumes, and indoor pollutants like biomass fuel, can contribute to the development of emphysema.
  • Occupational Exposures: People exposed to dust, fumes, and chemicals in certain workplaces may have an increased risk.
  • Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency: A genetic condition where the body doesn’t produce enough of a protein (alpha-1 antitrypsin) that protects the lungs from damage. This deficiency can lead to emphysema at a younger age, especially if the person smokes.
  • Age: The condition typically develops in people aged 40 and older because the lungs’ natural elasticity decreases with age.
  • Marijuana Smoke: Some studies suggest that long-term marijuana smoking might be associated with emphysema, though the evidence is less clear than with tobacco.
  • Previous Lung Infections: Recurrent and chronic lung infections can contribute to the onset and progression of the disease.
  • Connective Tissue Disorders: Certain disorders, like Marfan syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, might increase the risk of developing emphysema.

Note: While these are potential causes or risk factors, not everyone exposed to them will develop centrilobular emphysema. Genetic factors, immune responses, and other variables play a role in determining who gets the disease.


Centrilobular emphysema, as a subtype of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), can lead to several complications:

  • Respiratory Infections: People with emphysema are more susceptible to respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchitis. These infections can exacerbate symptoms and cause further lung damage.
  • Heart Problems: Emphysema can increase the pressure in the arteries that connect the heart and lungs. This can lead to a condition called cor pulmonale, where the right side of the heart enlarges and weakens.
  • Lung Collapse (Pneumothorax): Damaged lung tissue can lead to the presence of air between the lung and chest wall, causing a partial or complete lung collapse.
  • Lung Bullae: These are large air spaces that develop in the lung due to destroyed alveoli. Bullae can become very large and may compress healthy lung tissue.
  • Acute Exacerbations: Periods where symptoms become significantly worse than their usual day-to-day variations. These can be triggered by infections or environmental factors and may require hospitalization.
  • Respiratory Failure: In advanced stages, the lungs may not be able to provide enough oxygen to the bloodstream or remove enough carbon dioxide, leading to respiratory failure.
  • Hypoxemia: Persistently low levels of oxygen in the blood can lead to complications like cyanosis (bluish discoloration of the skin and lips).
  • Pulmonary Hypertension: High blood pressure in the arteries supplying the lungs.
  • Malnutrition: Breathing can become so labored for some people with emphysema that they may not consume enough calories, leading to weight loss and malnutrition.
  • Depression and Anxiety: Living with a chronic illness and experiencing breathing difficulties can contribute to mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

Remember: It’s essential for individuals with emphysema to receive regular medical care and follow their treatment plans closely to prevent or manage these complications.


The outlook for centrilobular emphysema, as with other forms of COPD, largely depends on several factors, including the severity of the disease at the time of diagnosis, the patient’s overall health, adherence to treatment, and lifestyle choices.

Here’s a general perspective on the outlook:

  • Progressive Nature: Emphysema is a progressive disease, which means it generally worsens over time. However, the rate of progression can vary significantly among individuals.
  • Disease Management: With proper management, including medications, lifestyle changes (like smoking cessation), and pulmonary rehabilitation, many people can lead active lives and manage their symptoms effectively.
  • Exacerbations: Periodic flare-ups or exacerbations can occur, which can decrease lung function more rapidly and affect quality of life. Proper management and timely treatment of these exacerbations are crucial.
  • Improved Outcomes: Early detection and intervention can significantly improve outcomes. Those who stop smoking, avoid irritants and follow medical advice usually have a slower disease progression and better quality of life.
  • Complications: As discussed earlier, various complications can arise from emphysema, which can affect the prognosis. Regular medical check-ups can help in early detection and management of these complications.
  • Lifespan: While emphysema can reduce life expectancy, many factors influence this, such as the severity of the disease, other underlying health conditions, and how well the condition is managed.
  • Quality of Life: Many patients, especially those who actively manage their disease, can maintain a good quality of life for many years. Pulmonary rehabilitation, in particular, can be very effective in improving daily functioning and well-being.

Remember: While centrilobular emphysema is a serious and progressive condition, a proactive approach to management can significantly influence the disease’s course and the individual’s quality of life. Regular medical care and a commitment to positive lifestyle changes are key to a better outlook.

How to Prevent Centrilobular Emphysema

Preventing centrilobular emphysema involves addressing its primary causes and risk factors.

Here are steps individuals can take to reduce their risk of developing this condition:

  • Avoid Smoking: Since cigarette smoking is the primary cause of centrilobular emphysema, avoiding smoking is the most effective preventive measure. For those who already smoke, quitting as soon as possible can reduce the risk and slow the progression of existing lung damage.
  • Limit Exposure to Lung Irritants: This includes avoiding secondhand smoke, chemical fumes, dust, and indoor and outdoor pollution. If working in an environment with potential irritants, using protective equipment like masks and ensuring proper ventilation is crucial.
  • Regular Check-ups: Especially for those at high risk, regular medical check-ups can help in early detection and intervention.
  • Stay Updated on Vaccinations: Getting vaccinated against respiratory infections like influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia can reduce the risk of acute flare-ups and further lung damage in people with early stages of the disease.
  • Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Testing: For individuals with a family history of emphysema at a young age or without known exposure to lung irritants, testing for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can be beneficial. Those with the deficiency can take measures to protect their lungs from further damage.
  • Exercise Regularly: Regular physical activity can help maintain healthy lung function and overall well-being.
  • Avoid Respiratory Infections: Frequent handwashing, avoiding crowds during flu season, and steering clear of individuals with respiratory infections can reduce the risk of catching infections that might exacerbate lung conditions.
  • Healthy Diet: A balanced diet rich in antioxidants (found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) might help protect lung tissue from damage.
  • Educate Yourself: Being aware of the risks and signs of lung diseases can lead to early detection and intervention.
  • Limit Alcohol and Drug Use: Excessive alcohol and certain recreational drugs can weaken the lungs and make them more susceptible to infections and diseases.

By addressing these factors, individuals can significantly reduce their risk of developing centrilobular emphysema and other related respiratory conditions.

Even if some damage has already occurred, taking preventive steps can slow the progression of the disease.

Centrilobular vs. Panlobular Emphysema

Centrilobular and panlobular emphysema are two primary subtypes of emphysema, each with its distinctive features and causes.

Centrilobular emphysema, also known as centriacinar emphysema, predominantly affects the central or proximal part of the secondary pulmonary lobules and is classically associated with smoking.

It primarily targets the upper lobes of the lungs. This form of emphysema results from the enlargement and destruction of the respiratory bronchioles, leaving the distal alveoli intact.

On the other hand, panlobular emphysema, also known as panacinar emphysema, affects the entire lobule uniformly. It is commonly associated with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic disorder.

Panlobular emphysema typically has a predilection for the lower lobes of the lungs and involves both the respiratory bronchioles and the alveoli, leading to uniform enlargement of air spaces throughout the lobule.

Note: Both forms result in impaired gas exchange and progressive respiratory symptoms, though the pattern of lung involvement and the underlying causes differ.

FAQs About Centrilobular Emphysema

What is the Difference Between Emphysema and Centrilobular Emphysema?

Emphysema is a chronic lung condition characterized by damaged and enlarged alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs, leading to breathlessness.

Centrilobular emphysema, on the other hand, is a subtype of emphysema.

It specifically affects the central parts of the secondary pulmonary lobules, primarily the upper lobes. Essentially, while centrilobular emphysema is a form of emphysema, not all emphysema is centrilobular.

What are the Risk Factors for Centrilobular Emphysema?

The primary risk factor for centrilobular emphysema is cigarette smoking. Other risk factors include long-term exposure to airborne irritants, such as air pollution, dust, chemical fumes, and secondhand smoke.

A person’s age and genetic factors can also contribute to the likelihood of developing the disease.

What is the Life Expectancy of a Person with Emphysema?

The life expectancy of a person with emphysema varies based on several factors, including the severity of the disease, overall health, age, and how well the condition is managed.

While emphysema can reduce life expectancy, many individuals with proper management and treatment can lead an active life for many years.

Early detection, cessation of smoking, adherence to medical advice, and avoidance of respiratory irritants can positively influence life expectancy.

What is Mild Centrilobular Emphysema?

Mild centrilobular emphysema refers to the early stages of the disease where the enlargement of the air spaces (centrilobules) is beginning, but symptoms might be minimal or even absent.

The damage in this stage is primarily in the upper lobes of the lungs and around the respiratory bronchioles.

A person might not yet experience significant breathlessness, and the condition might be detected incidentally through imaging like a CT scan.

How Serious is Mild Centrilobular Emphysema?

While the term “mild” suggests a less severe form, mild centrilobular emphysema indicates early-stage disease. Even if symptoms are minimal or absent, lung damage has begun.

Without intervention, such as quitting smoking or avoiding irritants, the condition can progress to moderate or severe emphysema, leading to increased symptoms and decreased lung function.

Early detection and management are crucial to prevent or slow down its progression.

Can Covid Cause Centrilobular Emphysema?

COVID-19 has been shown to cause a variety of lung complications, including pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

While there isn’t direct evidence to suggest that COVID-19 causes centrilobular emphysema specifically, severe infections can lead to long-term lung damage.

It’s essential to monitor and research the long-term effects of COVID-19 on lung health, as our understanding of the virus and its impacts is still evolving.

Is Centrilobular Emphysema a Type of Cancer?

No, centrilobular emphysema is not a type of cancer. It is a subtype of emphysema characterized by the enlargement and destruction of the air sacs in the central parts of the secondary pulmonary lobules.

While both cancer and emphysema affect the lungs, they are distinct conditions with different causes, treatments, and prognoses.

How Fast Does Centrilobular Emphysema Progress?

The progression rate of centrilobular emphysema varies among individuals.

Factors influencing its progression include the extent of smoking or exposure to other lung irritants, genetic predisposition, overall health, and adherence to medical advice and treatment.

In some, the disease may remain stable for years, while in others, it can progress more rapidly. Regular monitoring and early intervention are key to managing and slowing the disease’s progression.

Is Centrilobular Emphysema the Same as COPD?

Centrilobular emphysema is a subtype of emphysema, which, in turn, is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). So, while centrilobular emphysema falls under the umbrella of COPD, they are not the same.

COPD is a broader term that encompasses chronic bronchitis and all types of emphysema, including centrilobular, panlobular, and paraseptal emphysema.

Is Centrilobular Emphysema Reversible?

Centrilobular emphysema is not reversible. The damage to the air sacs and lung tissue is permanent.

However, treatments are available to manage symptoms, improve quality of life, and slow the progression of the disease.

Early intervention, cessation of smoking, and avoidance of other respiratory irritants are crucial for better outcomes and to prevent further deterioration of lung function.

Final Thoughts

Centrilobular emphysema is a significant health concern, primarily linked to smoking, that damages the lungs’ central alveolar structures.

Early detection, lifestyle modifications, and appropriate medical interventions are paramount in managing this condition and improving the quality of life for affected individuals.

Efforts towards increased awareness and smoking cessation play a crucial role in its prevention.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


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