Pulmonary edema


Pulmonary edema is a condition marked by the accumulation of excess fluid within the lungs, which can impede normal breathing. While it is primarily linked to heart issues, other factors like pneumonia, exposure to toxins, medications, chest trauma, or high-altitude activities can also lead to fluid buildup in the lungs.

Signs and symptoms of pulmonary edema include shortness of breath, coughing up foamy mucus, wheezing, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing. Congestive heart failure is a common cause, but it can also occur due to non-cardiac-related conditions.

Immediate medical attention is essential for acute pulmonary edema, a sudden and potentially life-threatening development. The treatment for pulmonary edema depends on its underlying cause. In general, management involves the administration of additional oxygen and specific medications.


Pulmonary edema can manifest suddenly or over time, with symptoms varying based on its type.

Acute pulmonary edema symptoms:

  • Severe breathlessness, which amplifies with activity or lying down.
  • Feeling like you’re suffocating, worsening when you’re lying down.
  • Coughing up frothy, sometimes blood-streaked sputum.
  • Heartbeat irregularities or racing.
  • Feeling anxious, restless, or sensing impending doom.
  • Cool and moist skin.
  • Struggling, noisy breathing.

Chronic pulmonary edema symptoms:

  • Waking up due to coughing or shortness of breath, which gets better when sitting up.
  • Breathlessness during activities or when lying flat.
  • Constant fatigue.
  • Experiencing more breathlessness during physical activities than before.
  • New or worsening cough.
  • Quick, unexplained weight gain.
  • Swollen legs and feet.
  • Wheezing noises.

High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) symptoms:

This condition affects those at high altitudes, both adults and children.

  • Initial symptom might be a headache.
  • Breathlessness during activities, progressing to breathlessness at rest.
  • Decreased exercise capacity.
  • Initially, the cough might be dry.
  • Later stages might have a cough with frothy pink or blood-streaked sputum.
  • Extremely rapid heartbeat.
  • Feeling weak.
  • Discomfort or pain in the chest.
  • Mild fever.
  • Symptoms often worsen during nighttime.

If you notice immediate signs of pulmonary edema, it’s imperative to seek urgent medical care. Dial your local emergency services if you experience:

  • Abrupt shortness of breath.
  • Difficulty breathing or a sensation of suffocation.
  • Wheezing, gasping, or bubbly breathing sounds.
  • Coughing up pink or blood-tinged mucus.
  • Sweating excessively while having trouble breathing.
  • Skin appearing blue or grayish in color.
  • Feeling disoriented or confused.
  • A noticeable drop in blood pressure leading to dizziness, fatigue, or sweating.
  • A rapid escalation in the intensity of pulmonary edema symptoms.


Pulmonary edema, or the accumulation of fluid in the lungs, can be categorized into cardiogenic (heart-related) and noncardiogenic (not heart-related) causes.


This type results from a heart issue leading to fluid buildup in the lungs. It often originates from congestive heart failure. When the left side of the heart fails to pump blood efficiently, pressure in the lung’s blood vessels increases, pushing fluid into the air sacs. Causes include:

  • Heart attack
  • Cardiomyopathy (weakened heart muscles)
  • Valvular heart disease (leaky or narrowed heart valves)
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm)
  • Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle)
  • Pericardial effusion (fluid around the heart)


This type is caused by conditions that make the lung’s blood vessels leaky, allowing fluid into the air sacs. This is not due to a backup of blood flow related to heart issues. Often referred to as Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), its main cause is inflammation. Factors include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Sepsis (severe infection)
  • Trauma
  • Pancreatitis
  • Liver disease
  • Certain drugs
  • Neurogenic factors (e.g., brain bleeding or swelling)
  • Negative pressure pulmonary edema (resulting from an upper airway blockage)
  • High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE)

Risk factors

Heart conditions that lead to increased pressure, such as heart failure, can heighten the risk of pulmonary edema. Factors that make one susceptible to heart failure include:

  • Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias)
  • Consumption of alcohol
  • Inborn heart defects
  • Blockages in the heart’s arteries (coronary artery disease)
  • Diabetes
  • Malfunctions in the heart valves
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Obstructive sleep apnea

Certain neurological conditions, along with lung injuries from events such as near drownings, substance abuse, smoke inhalation, viral diseases, and blood clots, can elevate the risk of pulmonary edema. Travelers ascending to places higher than 8,000 feet (around 2,400 meters) have an increased likelihood of contracting high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), especially if they don’t allocate several days to a week for acclimatization. Moreover, children with pre-existing pulmonary hypertension and congenital heart anomalies are at a heightened risk for HAPE.