What is Acute Pulmonary Edema?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2016
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Acute pulmonary edema is an extremely serious condition that requires immediate medical treatment. In this condition, the air sacs in the lungs become filled with fluid, and this impairs the lungs’ ability to oxygenate blood. Essentially, the body becomes deprived of oxygen quickly, which can be fatal when left untreated. There are many potential causes of acute pulmonary edema, with the primary ones usually being some form of cardiac dysfunction, especially heart attack and congestive heart failure. Other things may cause this condition, including exercising at high altitudes (HAPE or high altitude pulmonary edema), being exposed to toxic chemicals that damage the lungs, infections of the lungs like pneumonia, or poor kidney function.

Usually acute pulmonary edema is so named because it occurs fairly suddenly, though some people may show signs of pulmonary edema that is more gradual. When acute pulmonary edema occurs, there are a number of symptoms associated with it. These can include coughing up a foamy spit that can be pink in color or tinged with blood, having shortness of breath, feeling unable to catch breath, wheezing, heavy perspiration, anxiety, chest pain, pale and clammy skin, and a drowning sensation. People will also tend to feel much worse if they lie down, and they may panic if asked to do so.


The gradual form of pulmonary edema might be noticed over a longer time period. It could include difficulty exercising, difficulty lying down at night, and shortness of breath. Fluid retention tends to be common and people may gain weight quickly. Ankles and legs can look swollen.

Whether pulmonary edema occurs rapidly or people suffer from the more gradual form, both sets of symptoms need to be taken seriously, and demand medical attention immediately. The gradual type can easily progress to an acute type and this is not a condition that ought to be ignored. The body is starving for oxygen and this affects all of its systems.

Doctors will tend to look for cause immediately when a patient presents with acute pulmonary edema, though usually first treatment is to give oxygen. Detection of the underlying problem tends to involve a series of tests that include blood tests, evaluation of the heart for underlying heart problems with x-rays, electrocardiograms (EKGs) and echocardiograms. Catheterization to examine the lungs may be required too. Sometimes acute pulmonary edema has a very clear cause like exposure to toxins, and these tests may not be required.

Treatment of the condition must address the body’s need for oxygen and the underlying causes resulting in the fluid filled air sacs. When heart failure creates the issue, surgery might be required to create better function. Pneumonia that causes acute pulmonary edema may need treatment with antibiotics. People are often also given diuretics that can increase fluid output, and they may have fluid restrictions for a few days.

Even with treatment, sometimes acute pulmonary edema is fatal. This may be the case when there exists extreme and significant damage to the lungs or to other organs. However, many times this condition can be successfully managed if treatment is undertaken in time. Most important for people to remember is that time is of the essence. The symptoms of this condition need care immediately and should never be ignored.


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