Pulmonary edema, better known as fluid in the lungs, can be a life threatening condition. In pulmonary edema, there is an abnormal buildup of fluid in the tiny air sacs of the lungs. These air sacs, called alveoli, coat the inside of the lungs - 300 million of them, in fact. They look like very tiny clusters of grapes. When you inhale, the oxygen is absorbed by the alveoli; when you exhale, the carbon dioxide is released by the alveoli. When you have fluid in the lungs, it gets trapped inside those little air sacs, making it tough to breathe.
There are many reasons for pulmonary edema. Heart problems can cause it, as can some medical issues, such as pneumonia. Certain medications or toxins can cause it, and sometimes it is caused by living or exercising at higher elevations.
Symptoms and Complications of Fluid in Lungs
Fluid in the lungs can build up slowly, or it can set in very quickly, depending upon the cause. These are the symptoms to look out for and the complications fluid in the lungs can cause:
- Symptoms of Acute Fluid in Lungs. When you have sudden onset of pulmonary edema, you might find it very difficult to breathe. You could wheeze or gasp for breath, or feel as though you are drowning. You might cough up blood, have a feeling of doom or experience chest pain, sweating and a fast heartbeat.
- Symptoms of Chronic Fluid in Lungs. The signs of long-term fluid in the lungs include shortness of breath when you are active, difficulty breathing with exertion, wheezing, swelling of your ankles and legs, rapid weight gain from fluid buildup, and waking up at night feeling breathless. All of these symptoms can also lead to fatigue.
- Complications. There are many complications that accompany pulmonary edema. These can include swelling of your ankles or legs, swelling of your abdomen, swelling of the liver, and buildup of fluid in the membranes surrounding your lungs.
- When to See a Doctor. If you have signs of quick onset pulmonary edema, get to the emergency room. This is a life-threatening emergency! Chronic pulmonary edema happens over time, so mention any signs of it to your doctor at the first opportunity. But even if you have known fluid in the lungs, get to the emergency room if you have significant changes, such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, pale or grey skin, pink sputum when you cough, a bubbling sound when you breathe, a drop in blood pressure, dizziness, lightheadedness, or a feeling of suffocation.
Causes of Fluid in Lungs
A deeper understanding of the causes of fluid in the lungs can help you recognize symptoms and know when it's time to get help. Fluid in lungs can be caused by numerous problems.
Your heart and lungs work together as a team. When one of them is not working well, the other doesn't either. When your heart is struggling, it might not be able to move the blood effectively, thus resulting in pulmonary edema and other problems. These are common reasons for fluid in lungs:
- Coronary Artery Disease. When you have a weakened heart, which means the muscle doesn't pump as hard as it should. The result is blood backing up into your lungs. This makes the fluid in your bloods pass into the air sacs.
- Cardiomyopathy. If your heart is damaged by something other than blood flow problems, doctors call it cardiomyopathy. Your damaged heart tries to beat harder with activity, but it can't keep up, so fluid backs up into the lungs.
- Heart Valve Issues. If the valves of your heart don't open or close completely, there are problems with blood flow. This can build up pressure in the heart. This increase in pressure means fluid can back up into your lungs. If it happens suddenly, you might experience acute pulmonary edema - a serious emergency.
- High Blood Pressure. When your blood pressure is high, your arteries have to work much harder. Over time, this can lead to fluid buildup in your lungs.
Sometimes the pulmonary edema has nothing to do with your heart and instead is caused by something else. These are some of the most common causes:
- Lung Infections. If you are dealing with a problem like pneumonia, the area where the lung is affected can become swollen and filled with fluid. This edema often goes away when the underlying cause is treated.
- Toxins Exposure. Some household toxins, such as ammonia or chlorine, can cause problems if you accidentally inhale them. In addition, you can get fluid in your lungs if you aspirate, such as inhaling your own vomit.
- Kidney Disease. If your kidneys have trouble eliminating wastes from your body, the result can be fluid buildup in the body, including in the lungs.
- Smoke Inhalation. If you get smoke into your lungs, such as from a house fire, the result can be serious pulmonary edema. That's because many chemicals in a fire can damage the membranes in your lungs, allowing fluid to enter.
- Medication Reaction. Some medications can cause serious reactions that lead to edema. Illegal drugs can also cause this problem.
- Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). This is a very serious disorder that comes on suddenly and can threaten your life. It can often develop from pneumonia, septic shock, severe trauma or shock.
- High Altitudes. Those who exercise at over 8,000 feet might suffer from pulmonary edema. Though it isn't clear why this happens, it is probably caused by increased pressure of the blood vessels in the lungs. This is life-threatening and must be treated immediately.
- Water Inhaling. Any sort of inhaling of water, including a near-drowning, can result in fluid in the lungs. Emergency medical attention can help relieve the pressure.
Remedies for Fluid in Lungs
When you have fluid in your lungs, your doctor will immediately give you oxygen. You might then be given a variety of medications that are meant to help clear the lungs and restore your normal breathing. Sometimes you might need a machine to help you breathe.
Prevention is always worth a pound of cure, so try to prevent pulmonary edema by managing stress, eating a healthy diet, avoid smoking, and limit salt. You should also watch your cholesterol, be alert for signs of heart trouble and exercise regularly.
Other ways to help prevent the problem include weighing yourself daily for any signs of swelling (as a sudden increase in weight indicates water weight, not fat), get a good amount of sleep, take your blood pressure medication if applicable, stay on a good diet and listen to your doctor's advice.