Pulmonary Edema: Know the Signs and Get the Facts

Pulmonary edema means you have fluid building up in your lungs. That can make it hard for you to breathe.

Normally when you take a breath, your lungs fill with air. If you have pulmonary edema, they fill with fluid instead. When that happens, oxygen from the air can’t get from the lungs into the blood where it’s needed.

When it comes on suddenly it's called acute pulmonary edema, and can it be life threatening. If you have any of these symptoms, call 911 right away:

Don’t delay. You need immediate medical care.

When the problem happens over time, it’s called chronic pulmonary edema. You may:

  • Be tired
  • Gain weight rapidly (this may be a sign of fluid buildup and congestive heart failure)
  • Have more breathing problems than usual during physical activity
  • Have swollen legs and feet
  • Have trouble breathing when lying down
  • Wake up at night with a breathless feeling that gets better if you sit up
  • Wheeze


Pulmonary edema is usually caused by a problem with the heart. This is called cardiogenic pulmonary edema.

In many cases, the left ventricle (one of the chambers of the heart) isn’t able to pump out blood that enters through blood vessels coming from the lung. The poor pumping creates a buildup of pressure and fluid.

Narrow arteries, heart muscle damage, heart valve problems, and high blood pressure are among the conditions that can weaken the left ventricle.

Pulmonary edema isn’t always related to heart problems.

Other causes include:

Pulmonary edema also can be brought on from being in high altitudes, usually above 8,000 feet. Mountain climbers should get to lower ground and seek medical attention if they have:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Cough
  • Cough with frothy spit that may have some blood in it
  • Fast, irregular heartbeat
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath when they’re active that gets worse over time
  • Trouble walking uphill that leads to trouble walking on a flat surface



To help the doctor find out what’s going on, you may need to:

  • Answer questions about your medical history
  • Have a physical exam
  • Get a chest X-ray so the doctor can study your heart and lungs
  • Have heart tests to measure how well your heart beats
  • Have a blood test to find out how much oxygen and carbon dioxide are in your blood


If you’re having trouble breathing, you’ll get oxygen right away if your oxygen level is low. You may get it through a facemask, or with tubes put inside your nostrils.

Your treatment will depend on what’s causing your pulmonary edema. Whether it’s your heart, medication, or an illness, your doctor will try to deal with the problem that brought it on.

The doctor may prescribe medicine such as a diuretic to lower the pressure on your heart and lungs.

He or she also may recommend some lifestyle changes to help keep the pulmonary edema in check, including:

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 11, 2018



Mayo Clinic: "Pulmonary Edema."

American Heart Association: "Types of Heart Failure."

Up to Date: "Noncardiogenic Pulmonary Edema."

Medscape: "Cardiogenic Pulmonary Edema Treatment & Management."

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