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Pulmonary oedema FAQs

Pulmonary oedema caused the death of Boyzone's Stephen Gately in 2009, but what is pulmonary oedema? Read our FAQs.

What is pulmonary oedema?

Pulmonary oedema is when the lungs fill with fluid. The fluid congestion reduces oxygen in the blood and can cause an accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2). It is a medical emergency.

Pulmonary oedema is often classified as cardiogenic or non-cardiogenic depending on whether it is due to a heart (cardiac) problem or not.

Cardiogenic pulmonary oedema is the most common type and is sometimes referred to as heart failure or congestive heart failure.

Non-cardiogenic pulmonary oedema is less common and occurs because of damage to the lung tissue and subsequent inflammation of lung tissue.

What are the symptoms of pulmonary oedema?

Pulmonary oedema may cause severe shortness of breath, excessive sweating and wheezing. Some people with pulmonary oedema may experience a cough with frothy sputum (spit) with blood in it.

How is pulmonary oedema diagnosed?

Doctors will diagnose pulmonary oedema based on a patient's symptoms, a chest X-ray and other tests.

Who gets it?

Anyone can get it, although it is most commonly seen due to heart failure.

What age do people get it?

People of any age can get it.

Does is run in families?

It is a symptom of a condition, so it would depend on the condition.

Is it always fatal?

Not always, although it is life-threatening.

Is there anything you can do to prevent it?

Cardiogenic pulmonary oedema is due to heart-related illnesses. Many of these are preventable by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and controlling conditions like hypertension and diabetes.

What is the treatment?

You have to treat the cause but to relieve the problem initially patients are usually admitted to hospital and often given oxygen, nitrates and drugs called diuretics to get rid of the fluid.

Cardiogenic pulmonary oedema is a chronic condition to be controlled and but cannot necessarily be cured.

Is it rare?

No, it can happen for lots of reasons, although it most commonly occurs in people with heart failure.

Can you explain the connection with the heart?

If the heart isn't pumping properly then fluid builds up in the lungs causing pulmonary oedema.

Other causes

Pulmonary oedema can also be a complication of severe infection, kidney failure, pneumonia, exposure to some chemicals or toxins, including sulphuric acid, and altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness happens when you go too high, too quickly. As less oxygen gets to the muscles and brain, the heart and lungs have to work harder causing breathing and pulse rates to increase. The body is thrown out of its normal balance and, in a small number of cases, typically at above 3500m (11000ft), two potentially life-threatening complications occur: fluid accumulates in the lungs (high altitude pulmonary oedema) or in the brain (high altitude cerebral oedema).

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on January 28, 2015

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