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Pulmonary edema is a condition in which the lungs fill with fluid. It’s also known as lung congestion, lung water, and pulmonary congestion. When pulmonary edema occurs, the body struggles to get enough oxygen and you start to have shortness of breath.
Your outlook improves with timely treatment for pulmonary edema and its underlying cause.
In cases of pulmonary edema, your body will struggle to gain oxygen. This is due to the amount of increasing fluid in the lungs preventing oxygen moving into the blood stream. Symptoms will grow worse until your doctor removes the fluid.
Symptoms depend on the type of pulmonary edema.
The symptoms for long-term pulmonary edema include:
Pulmonary edema due to high altitude sickness, or not getting enough oxygen in the air, will have symptoms that include:
Get emergency assistance if these symptoms start to get worse. Do not drive yourself to the hospital.
Call 911 or local emergency services immediately for medical help if you experience any of these symptoms:
These may be symptoms of acute pulmonary edema. Acute pulmonary edema develops suddenly. If left untreated, the fluid in your lungs can make you drown.
The most common cause of pulmonary edema is congestive heart failure (CHF). Heart failure is when the heart can no longer pump blood properly throughout the body. This creates a back-up of pressure in the small blood vessels of the lungs, which causes the vessels to leak fluid.
In a healthy body, the lungs will take oxygen from the air you breathe and put it into the bloodstream. But when fluid fills your lungs, they cannot put oxygen into the bloodstream. This deprives the rest of the body of oxygen.
Other less common medical conditions that can cause pulmonary edema include:
Some external factors can also put extra pressure on the heart and lungs and cause pulmonary edema. These outside factors are:
People with heart problems or heart failure are the most at risk for pulmonary edema. Other factors that may put a person at risk include:
You doctor will look for fluid in your lungs, or symptoms caused by its presence. They will perform a basic physical examination and listen to your lungs with a stethoscope, looking for:
Your doctor may also look at your neck for fluid buildup, legs and abdomen for swelling, and if you have pale or blue-colored skin. Your doctor will also discuss your symptoms, and ask about your medical history. If they believe you have fluid in your lungs, they will order additional tests.
Examples of tests used in diagnosing pulmonary edema include:
Pulmonary edema is a serious condition that requires quick treatment. Oxygen is always the first line treatment for this condition. Your healthcare team will prop you up and deliver 100 percent oxygen through an oxygen mask, nasal cannula, or positive pressure mask.
Your doctor will also diagnose the cause of pulmonary edema and prescribe the appropriate treatment for the underlying cause.
Depending on your condition and the cause of your pulmonary edema, your doctor may also give:
In severe cases, people with pulmonary edema may need intensive or critical care.
Some cases of pulmonary edema may need treatment to assist breathing. A machine will deliver oxygen under pressure to help get more air into the lungs. Sometimes this can be done with a mask or cannula, also called Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). Or your doctor may need to insert an endotracheal tube, or breathing tube, down your throat and use mechanical ventilation.
There is no way to fully prevent pulmonary edema. Those at high risk should seek immediate attention if they develop symptoms of the disorder.
The best way to try and prevent pulmonary edema is by taking good care of your health:
You can also decrease your risk for heart failure, the most common cause of pulmonary edema:
The outlook for pulmonary edema depends on the severity of your case. If you have a moderate case and receive quick treatment, you will often have a full recovery. Severe cases can be fatal if you delay treatment.
Be sure to see your doctor regularly, and get immediate help if you experience any of the symptoms of pulmonary edema.
Written by: Lydia Krause
Medically reviewed on: Dec 14, 2016: Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA, COI
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