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Pulmonary edema

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Respiratory System

Pulmonary edema is a medical emergency and requires immediate care. Although it can sometimes prove fatal, the outlook is often good when you receive prompt treatment along with therapy for the underlying problem.

Your lungs contain millions of small, elastic air sacs called alveoli. With each breath, these air sacs take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, a waste product of metabolism. Normally, the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place without problems. But sometimes increased pressure in the blood vessels in your lungs forces fluid into the air sacs, filling your lungs with fluid and preventing them from absorbing oxygen - a condition called pulmonary edema.


Administering oxygen is the first step in treating any kind of pulmonary edema. You usually receive oxygen through a face mask or nasal cannula — a flexible plastic tube with two openings that deliver oxygen to each nostril. This should ease some of your symptoms. Sometimes it may be necessary to assist your breathing with a machine.

Depending on your condition and the reason for your pulmonary edema, you may also receive one or more of the following medications:

  • Furosemide (Lasix). This drug that increases the flow of urine (diuretic) works quickly to expel excess fluid from your body in cases of cardiac pulmonary edema and HAPE.

  • Morphine (Astramorph, Roxanol). Doctors sometimes use this narcotic in cases of cardiac pulmonary edema to relieve shortness of breath and associated anxiety.

  • Afterloaders. These drugs dilate the peripheral vessels and take a pressure load off the left ventricle.

  • Aspirin. Your doctor may recommend starting aspirin therapy if you're not already taking it. Aspirin helps thin the blood so that it moves through your small blood vessels more easily.

  • Blood pressure medications. If you have high blood pressure when you develop pulmonary edema, you'll need medications to control it. On the other hand, if your blood pressure is too low, you're likely receive drugs to raise it.

Treating high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE)
If you're climbing or traveling at high altitudes and experience mild symptoms of HAPE, descending a few thousand feet should help your symptoms. Oxygen also is usually helpful. When symptoms are more severe, you'll likely need help in your descent. A helicopter rescue may be necessary for the most serious cases.

Sometimes, however, immediate rescue isn't possible. With this in mind, researchers have devised several experimental therapies. In one, the distressed climber is placed in an airtight bag known as a hyperbaric bag, which is then pumped with air, simulating the air pressure at a lower altitude. A night's sleep in the bag seems to relieve symptoms — at least temporarily.

Some climbers take the prescription medication acetazolamide (Diamox) to prevent symptoms of HAPE. Diamox can occasionally have side effects — including tingling or burning in the hands, feet and mouth, confusion, diarrhea, nausea, and excessive thirst — and must be started three days before your ascent.

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Last Modified : 03/15/08 01:59 AM