Can You Live With One Lung?

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on September 24, 2022
3 min read

Cancer or other health problems could lead you and your doctor to decide to remove one of your lungs. In most cases, one healthy lung should be able to deliver enough oxygen and remove enough carbon dioxide for your body to stay healthy.

Doctors call the surgery to remove a lung a pneumonectomy.

Once you’ve recovered from the operation, you can live a pretty normal life with one lung. You’ll still be able to do normal, everyday tasks without a problem. The surgery doesn’t seem to cause any issues for the remaining lung.

Still, your lung capacity will be half of what it was, so you may notice that you get breathless more easily, especially when you exercise. You’re also more likely to have pain, tiredness, heart problems, and some other health issues. And if you have a condition that affects your remaining lung, like emphysema or chronic bronchitis, you’ll likely find it harder than before to catch your breath. You’ll need to talk with your doctor about any symptoms that you notice and treatments that can help you breathe easier.

Lung cancer is the most common reason. Usually it’s cancer that starts in the lungs, but it could also happen when tumors spread there from another part of your body.

Not everyone with lung cancer will need to have a lung removed. It may be an option for people with tumors that are especially large or grow near the center of the lung.

Other health problems that may need treatment with a pneumonectomy include:

You’ll get medicine to put you completely to sleep for the operation.

A surgeon will cut into the side of your chest closest to the lung that needs removal. They will collapse your lung, close off the larger blood vessels around it, cut the main bronchial tube as close to your windpipe as possible, and remove the lung. Then they’ll close what remains of the cut bronchial tube and make sure it doesn’t leak air.

In an “extrapleural” pneumonectomy, the surgeon will also remove the lining of your chest wall (called the pleura) along with parts of other nearby tissue, and patch them with strong, sterile, man-made materials.

You will typically need to stay at the hospital for a week or two after surgery so your medical team can watch your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure and check you for infection.

Though you may be sore, you shouldn’t have serious pain. Tell your doctor if you feel any, especially if it comes on suddenly.

You may work with a trained professional called a respiratory therapist to learn special breathing exercises, which you’ll need to do a few times a day. These help you strengthen your breathing and remove fluid that builds up from the surgery.

You’ll need someone to drive you home from the hospital and help you around the house in the first several days. Take it easy at first -- no heavy lifting. You will get tired more easily, but your strength and stamina should return over the next few weeks or months.

Call your doctor if you notice anything that looks like infection or you have fever, cough, swelling, or pain that gets worse. Call 911 if you have chest pain, pain when you breathe, shortness of breath, or other trouble breathing.