Symptoms and treatments for pulmonary edema

If you're worried about pulmonary edema, here are the symptoms you should look for, what you can do to prevent it and when you should call an ambulance.

Symptoms and treatments for pulmonary edema

Pulmonary edema is a condition where fluid builds up in the lungs. It can be a chronic problem, with manageable symptoms exhibiting over a long period, or it can be an acute, life-threatening problem requiring immediate medical attention.

What happens

Your lungs are made up of tiny air-filled sacs, like millions of balloons. They are the oxygen-exchange factory of your body. When things are working well, the heart pumps blood in from the rest of your body, sends it through the lungs where it picks up oxygen, then sends it back out to the body to take oxygen to all the cells. This usually happens rapidly; blood passes through the lungs quickly, picking up oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide on its way.

When you have pulmonary edema, the heart isn't working properly and blood backs up in the vessels of the lungs. This allows the air-sacs to become waterlogged and keeps them from oxygenating the blood properly.


Symptoms of acute pulmonary edema can include:

• Shortness of breath which is worse when lying down;

• Feeling like you're drowning or suffocating;

• A cough producing frothy sputum, which may be tinged with blood;

• Rapid, irregular heartbeat;

• Chest pain, if it is caused by an underlying heart condition;

• A sudden drop in blood pressure, resulting in dizziness, weakness and sweating;

• Blue or grey-tinged skin;

• Difficulty breathing, with profuse sweating.

If you have these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Acute pulmonary edema can be fatal.

The symptoms of chronic pulmonary edema are similar but less severe. They include:

• Shortness of breath with activity, which gets worse with exertion or when lying flat;

• Wheezing;

• Nighttime shortness of breath, which improves with sitting up;

• Water weight-gain, especially in the legs;

• Chronic fatigue.

If you're suffering from these symptoms, see your doctor. Chronic pulmonary edema can be serious, but is usually manageable.


Pulmonary edema is usually caused by an underlying heart condition, such as coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathy or heart valve problems. However, it can be brought on by various other problems which affect the heart or lungs, including:

• Chest trauma;

• Sepsis;

• Drug reactions;

• Blood clots;

• Viral infections;

• Exposure to toxins---especially ammonia and chlorine;

• Smoke inhalation;

• High altitudes;

• Near-drowning.


Pulmonary edema is treated first and foremost with oxygen; it is imperative to re-oxygenate the blood and disburse oxygen to all parts of the body.

Diuretics may be prescribed to relieve fluid build-up, and sometimes morphine is used to reduce shortness of breath and anxiety. If you have high blood pressure, blood pressure stabilizers may be necessary.

Nitroglycerin is also a standard treatment, as it dilates the blood vessels of the heart and reduces its work load.

What you can do

• If you have high blood pressure, do your best to keep it under control. High blood pressure can damage the heart and lead to pulmonary edema.

• Take care of any other underlying conditions.

• Avoid the cause, if possible---high altitudes, some allergens and some toxins can lead to the problem.

• Stop smoking.

• Keep a healthy weight. Excess weight puts a strain on the heart.

• Eat a heart-healthy diet.

• Limit salt, especially if you already have a heart condition.

• Exercise 30 minutes a day to keep your heart healthy.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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