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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.


Pulmonary edema often isn't preventable, but these measures can help reduce your risk:

Preventing cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of pulmonary edema. You can reduce your risk of many kinds of heart problems by following these suggestions:

  • Control your blood pressure. More than 50 million Americans have high blood pressure (hypertension), which can lead to serious conditions such as stroke, cardiovascular disease and kidney failure. Most adults should have their blood pressure checked at least once every two years. This noninvasive and painless procedure uses an inflatable cuff that wraps around your upper arm. The test takes just a few minutes. Under new, stricter national blood pressure guidelines issued in May 2003, a resting blood pressure reading below 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) is considered normal. If your resting blood pressure is consistently 140/90 mm Hg or higher, you have high blood pressure. A reading in between these levels places you in the prehypertensive category. But in many cases, you can lower your blood pressure or maintain a healthy level by getting regular exercise, eating a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, and limiting alcohol and coffee.

  • Watch your blood cholesterol. Cholesterol is one of several types of fats essential to good health. But too much cholesterol can be too much of a good thing. Higher-than-normal cholesterol levels (hypercholesterolemia) can cause fatty deposits to form in your arteries, impeding blood flow and increasing your risk of vascular disease. Fortunately, lifestyle changes can often keep your cholesterol levels low. This includes limiting fats to no more than 30 percent of your diet, eating more fiber, fish, soy foods, and fresh fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, stopping smoking, and drinking in moderation.

  • Don't smoke. If you smoke, the most important thing you can do for your heart and lung health is to stop. Continuing to smoke increases your risk of a second heart attack or heart-related death and your risk of lung cancer and other lung problems such as emphysema. What's more, you're at risk even if you don't smoke but live or work with someone who does. Exposure to secondhand smoke has been shown to be a contributing factor to coronary artery disease. If you can't stop smoking by yourself, ask your doctor to prescribe a treatment plan to help you quit.

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Fish is one of the cornerstones of a heart-healthy diet — it contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help improve blood cholesterol levels and prevent blood clots. It's also important to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants — vitamins and minerals that help prevent everyday wear and tear on your coronary arteries. Limit your intake of all types of fats to no more than 30 percent of your daily calories, and animal (saturated) and trans fats (hydrogenated oils) to 10 percent or less.

  • Limit salt. It's especially important to limit your salt intake if you have heart disease. In some people with impaired left ventricular function, excess salt — even in a single meal — may be enough to trigger congestive heart failure. If you're having a hard time cutting back on salt, you may find it helpful to talk to a dietitian. He or she can help point out high-sodium foods as well as offer tips for making a low-salt diet interesting and good tasting. Once you adopt your new eating plan, you may find you don't miss salt at all — most Americans consume much more salt than they need.

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise is vital for a healthy heart. Regular aerobic exercise helps maintain a healthy weight, controls blood pressure and cholesterol levels, helps prevent diabetes and maintains muscle tone. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days. If you're not used to exercise, start out slowly and build up gradually.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being just 10 percent overweight increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, losing only 5 to 10 pounds can lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of diabetes.

  • Get enough folic acid. Adequate folic acid may reduce blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that builds and maintains tissues. Too much homocysteine can promote atherosclerosis — the formation of plaques in your arteries. To get 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, eat green, leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, legumes, peanuts and cereal grains. If you're not sure how much folic acid you're getting from your diet, talk to your doctor about a folic acid supplement, or choose a multivitamin supplement that contains 400 micrograms of folic acid.

  • Manage stress. To reduce your risk of heart problems, try to reduce your stress levels. Rethink workaholic habits and find healthy ways to minimize or deal with stressful events in your life.

Preventing HAPE
If you travel or climb at high altitudes, acclimate yourself slowly. Although recommendations vary, most experts advise ascending no more than 1,000 or 2,000 feet a day once you reach 8,000 feet. In addition, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. The higher you ascend the more rapidly you breathe, which means you lose larger amounts of water in the air you exhale from your lungs. Finally, although being physically fit won't necessarily prevent HAPE, people in good condition tend to be less stressed at high altitudes.

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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