What is pulmonary edema?

Pulmonary edema: Overview

Pulmonary edema is the buildup of fluid in the lungs. It usually occurs when the heart does not pump blood through the body properly. Pulmonary edema can also be caused by another disease, such as liver or kidney failure. It can also happen at high altitudes, from a poisoning, or as a result of a nonfatal drowning.

If you have fluid in your lungs, you may have trouble breathing, be restless, have a fast heart rate, or cough up foamy pink fluid. Breathing problems may be worse when you lie down.

Pulmonary edema

Pulmonary edema is the buildup of fluid in the lungs, usually resulting from the heart's inability to pump blood through the body effectively. It can be caused by such things as heart or kidney failure, poisoning, or nonfatal drowning.

Symptoms of pulmonary edema include difficulty breathing, restlessness, shortness of breath that is worse when lying down, rapid heart rate, and a cough that sometimes produces foamy pink fluid.

Although pulmonary edema can be a life-threatening condition, it is treatable, depending on the cause. Treatment may include oxygen given through the nose or a face mask. In severe cases, relief may require a breathing tube placed into the windpipe (intubation) and use of a breathing machine (ventilator). Medicines to strengthen the heart muscle or to relieve the pressure on the heart may also be given as needed.

How is pulmonary edema treated?

The goal of treatment is to relieve the fluid buildup in your lungs and help you breathe more easily. The doctor may:

  • Give you medicines to help relieve the fluid buildup.
  • Give you oxygen through the nose or a face mask. You may need a breathing machine (ventilator) and have a breathing tube placed into your windpipe (intubation).

Your treatment also depends on what caused the edema. For example, you may also get medicines to help your heart pump blood more easily. You may get medicine through a vein (I.V., or intravenously).

How can you care for pulmonary edema?


  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Review all of your regular medicines with your doctor. Do not take any vitamins, over-the-counter medicines, or herbal products without talking to your doctor first.


  • Eat a balanced diet. Make an appointment with a dietitian if you have questions about what type of diet might be best for you.
  • Do not eat more than 2,000 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day. That is less than 1 teaspoon of salt a day, including all the salt you eat in prepared or packaged foods.
    • Do not add salt while you are cooking or at the table. Flavor with garlic, lemon juice, onion, vinegar, herbs, and spices instead of salt.
    • Eat fewer processed foods and foods from restaurants, including fast food.
    • Use fresh or frozen foods instead of canned.
    • Count and record how much sodium you eat each day. Check food labels for sodium.
    • Ask your doctor before using salt substitutes that have potassium, such as Lite Salt.


  • Stay out of air pollution; smog; cold, dry air; hot, humid air; and high altitudes.
  • Learn breathing methods that help the airflow in and out of your lungs.
  • Take rest breaks often. Schedule short rest breaks when doing housework and other activities. An occupational or physical therapist can help you find ways to do everyday activities with less effort.
  • Start light exercise if your doctor says it is okay. Try to stay as active as possible. If you have not exercised in the past, start out slowly. Walking is a good way to start.
  • Get enough rest at night. Sleeping with 1 or 2 pillows under your upper body and head may help you breathe easier at night.
  • Discuss rehabilitation with your doctor. Find out what programs are available in your area.
  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. Smoking can make your condition worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Do not use alcohol or illegal drugs.

What is pulmonary edema?

Pulmonary edema is the buildup of fluid in the lungs. It usually happens when the heart does not pump blood through the body as well as it should. Blood can back up into the blood vessels that carry blood from the lungs to the heart. Blood pressure rises in those blood vessels, and fluid is pushed into the lungs. This makes it hard to breathe. Other symptoms include a new irregular or rapid heartbeat and coughing up foamy, pink mucus.

Pulmonary edema can also be caused by another disease, such as liver or kidney failure. It can also happen at high altitudes, from a poisoning, or by a nonfatal drowning.

A chest X-ray and a blood test are often used to identify this condition.

Pulmonary edema is serious. You may need special care, such as being in the intensive care unit (ICU). This may worry you. But the hospital staff understands this. They will explain what happens and will answer your questions.

Pulmonary edema: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have symptoms of a heart attack. These may include:
    • Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
    • Sweating.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • Nausea or vomiting.
    • Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly or in one or both shoulders or arms.
    • Lightheadedness or sudden weakness.
    • A fast or irregular heartbeat. Pain that spreads from the chest to the neck, jaw, or one or both shoulders or arms.

After you call 911, the operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength or 2 to 4 low-dose aspirin. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have trouble breathing or have wheezing that is getting worse.
  • You are coughing more deeply or more often.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You get a fever.
  • You have more swelling in your legs or belly.
  • Your symptoms are getting worse.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.