Pulmonary Edema

What is Pulmonary Edema?

Pulmonary Edema is a condition where you have trouble breathing, caused by excess fluid in your lungs. Alveoli, the tiny air sacs in your lung that fill up with oxygen and release carbon dioxide, can’t function properly when they become partially filled with fluid.

Heart problems are usually responsible for pulmonary edema, but other diseases like pneumonia can also cause the condition. Some people experience fluid buildup in the lungs after using certain medicines or experiencing a traumatic injury to the chest. You may also get high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) from exercising at altitudes above 2,000 or 3,000 feet.

Pulmonary edema can come on very gradually or very suddenly. The sudden, or acute, version can be fatal, so it is important to seek medical attention if you have any trouble breathing.

What are the Symptoms of Pulmonary Edema?

Sudden symptoms may include trouble breathing, tightness in the chest, coughing, sweating, and developing a blue tint to your nails and lips. You may also see pink, bubbly mucus at your nose and mouth.

Pulmonary edema that is caused by congestive heart failure or another heart disease happens more slowly, and you’ll experience gradual shortness of breath when you lie down or get up as well as fatigue. Some people retain fluid and become swollen.

Pulmonary Edema Causes

Pulmonary edema occurs when the air sacs in your lungs become filled with fluid and prevent oxygen from getting into the bloodstream. Cardiogenic pulmonary edema is caused by the increase in pressure in the heart. When the left ventricle is overworked and fails to pump out enough blood from the lungs, it causes congestive heart failure. This causes fluid to be pushed through the capillary walls and into the air sacs. Cardiogenic pulmonary edema can result from cardiomyopathy, high blood pressure, heart valve problems, and coronary artery disease.

Noncardiogenic pulmonary edema can result from kidney failure, smoke inhalation, pulmonary embolism, brain trauma (intracranial hemorrhage), nervous system conditions, heroin overdose, exposure to certain toxins, adverse drug reactions, injury to the lungs, nearly drowning, and viral infections. Eclampsia, transfusion-related acute lung injury (TRALI), and aspirin overdose can also cause noncardiogenic pulmonary edema.

How is Pulmonary Edema Treated?

No matter what the cause is, a case of pulmonary edema is usually first treated by giving you oxygen to ensure your body is getting sufficient amounts.

Your doctor may prescribe medication that can help you reduce the fluid in your body, which will lessen the fluid in your lungs. For pulmonary edema caused by heart problems, medications to help your heart work more efficiently may clear up some of your symptoms.

Two methods of increasing oxygen in the air you breathe can also help. Noninvasive, positive pressure ventilation (NPPV) and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) are especially helpful for treating chronic forms of the disease.

Pulmonary Edema Prevention

Pulmonary edema may not always be preventable, but you can take steps to reduce your risk of getting it. By maintaining a healthy weight and watching your cholesterol, you can reduce your risk of pulmonary edema. You can keep your cholesterol levels low by eating fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, and fiber, and by limiting your saturated fat intake. Drinking alcohol only in moderation can also lower your risk of pulmonary edema.

Other ways to reduce your risk include quitting smoking, eating a hearty healthy diet (one low in solid fats, salt, and sugar), and exercising regularly (about 30 minutes a day).

Preventing high-altitude pulmonary edema can be accomplished by taking prescription medications like nifedipine (Procardia) or acetazolamide (Diamox Sequels). You can also prevent this type of pulmonary edema by ascending high altitudes slowly and limiting how high you climb by 1,000 to 1,200 feet per day once you reach 8,200 feet. Experts recommend resting for one day every 600 to 1,200 feet when your altitude reaches 8,200 feet.

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Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
January 17, 2018