Pulmonary edema is a buildup of fluid in your lungs. That can make it hard for you to breathe. When you take a breath, your lungs should fill with air. If you have pulmonary edema, they fill with fluid instead. When that happens, oxygen from the air can’t get from your lungs into your blood, where it’s needed.
Acute pulmonary edema comes on suddenly and can be life-threatening. If you have any of these symptoms, call 911 right away:
Sudden shortness of breath, especially after activity or while lying down
Feeling like you’re drowning or your heart is dropping
Trouble breathing with a lot of sweating
Breathing that sounds bubbly, wheezing, or gasping
Coughing up pink, frothy spit
Skin that’s cold and clammy or looks blue or gray
A rapid, uneven heartbeat (palpitations)
Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, weak, or sweaty, which can signal a drop in blood pressure
When the problem happens over time, it’s called chronic pulmonary edema. You may:
Gain weight rapidly (this may be a sign of fluid buildup and congestive heart failure)
Have more breathing problems than usual when you’re active
Have swollen legs and feet
Have trouble breathing when lying down
Wake up at night with a breathless feeling that gets better if you sit up
Cardiogenic pulmonary edema
This type is caused by a problem with your heart.
In many cases, your left ventricle (one of the chambers of your heart) isn’t able to pump out blood that enters through blood vessels from your lung. This creates a buildup of pressure and fluid.
Narrow arteries, heart muscle damage, heart valve problems, and high blood pressure are among the conditions that can weaken your left ventricle.
Noncardiogenic pulmonary edema
This type isn’t related to heart problems. Other causes include:
Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
Brain surgery or conditions such as seizures and head injuries
High pressure in your chest after your airway is blocked
Contact with ammonia, chlorine, or other toxins
Inhaling smoke that has certain chemicals
Lung injury after removal of blood clots
Reaction to some drugs, including aspirin
Blood poisoning or sepsis
Pulmonary edema also can be brought on from being in high altitudes, usually above 8,000 feet. Mountain climbers should get to lower ground and seek medical attention if they have:
Cough with frothy spit that may have some blood in it
Fast, irregular heartbeat
Shortness of breath when they’re active that gets worse over time
Trouble walking uphill that leads to trouble walking on a flat surface
To help your doctor find out what’s going on, you may need to:
Answer questions about your medical history
Have a physical exam
Get a chest X-ray so the doctor can study your heart and lungs
Have heart tests to measure how well your heart beats
Have a blood test to find out how much oxygen and carbon dioxide are in your blood
If you’re having trouble breathing and your oxygen level is low, you’ll get oxygen right away. You may get it through a face mask, or with tubes put inside your nostrils.
Your treatment will depend on what’s causing your pulmonary edema. Whether it’s your heart, medication, or an illness, your doctor will try to deal with the problem that brought it on.
The doctor may prescribe medicine such as a diuretic to lower the pressure on your heart and lungs.