Pulmonary Edema

Your healthcare provider has told you that you have pulmonary edema. Read on to learn more about pulmonary edema and how it can be treated.

What is pulmonary edema?

Front view of human neck and chest showing lungs. Detail of lung shows closeup view of fluid building up in alveoli.

Pulmonary edema occurs when the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs fill with fluid. The fluid buildup makes it hard for the lungs to do their job, including getting oxygen from the air you breathe. This can make it hard to breathe. The most common cause of pulmonary edema is heart failure. When the heart doesn’t work properly, it can cause pressure to rise in the veins (blood vessels) of the lungs. As pressure builds, fluid leaks out of the congested veins. It fills the alveoli. The extra fluid prevents oxygen from moving through the lungs as it should. But heart failure isn’t the only cause of pulmonary edema. Damage to the lungs or kidney failure can also cause fluid to fill the lungs. And in some cases, living or exercising at high altitudes can lead to fluid buildup in the lungs.

How is pulmonary edema diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider does an exam and asks about your health history. You may also have one or more of the following:

  • Blood tests to take samples of blood.

  • Imaging tests to take detailed pictures of inside the body. These may include a chest X-ray and ultrasound.

  • Electrocardiography (ECG)  and echocardiogram to test how well the heart is functioning.

How is pulmonary edema treated?

Treatment usually depends on what’s causing the edema. For instance, if it’s because of heart failure, treating the heart condition will treat the edema. Treatment can also ease symptoms. Therapy often includes the following:

  • Oxygen. This may be given through a mask that goes over the nose. It may be given through a small tube that sits under the nose. Sometimes, pressurized air will be needed through a tight fitting mask, using a machine called CPAP or BiPAP. Or it may be given through a tube placed into the windpipe (trachea). If a tube is required, a ventilator, often called a breathing machine or respirator will be used.

  • Medicines. These may include water pills (diuretics) to help your body get rid of extra fluid. The fluid passes out of your body as urine. You may also need medicines to treat the heart. These can help your heart work better. This helps reduce fluid buildup in the lungs.

What are the long-term concerns?

If treated right away, pulmonary edema can be improved. It may even be cured. But in some cases, ongoing treatment is needed to help control the problem. This may require having procedures or taking medicines for months or years. In some cases, you may need to use oxygen or breathing equipment for a long time. This can lead to complications such as damage to lung tissue. Your healthcare provider can tell you more if needed.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Chest pain

  • Severe trouble breathing

  • Coughing up blood

  • Skin turns blue


When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of the following:

  • Unusual or irregular heartbeat

  • Unable to speak full sentences before running out of breath

  • Sweating more than usual