What Are the Basics of Pulmonary Edema?

What is pulmonary edema?

Pulmonary edema is a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs. This fluid collects in the numerous air sacs in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.


  • Shortness of breath after exertion, which progresses to shortness of breath at rest
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • A rapid, irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
  • Chest discomfort
  • Headaches, which may be the first symptom


Your lungs contain numerous small, elastic air sacs called alveoli. With each breath, these air sacs take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

Normally, the exchange of gases takes place without problems. But in certain circumstances, the alveoli fill with fluid instead of air, preventing oxygen from being absorbed into your bloodstream.

Several things can cause fluid to accumulate in your lungs, but most have to do with your heart (cardiogenic pulmonary edema).


Giving oxygen is the first step in the treatment for 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.

The doctor will monitor your oxygen level closely. Sometimes it may be necessary to assist your breathing with a machine such as a mechanical ventilator or one that provides positive airway pressure.

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