What is acute pulmonary edema?

Acute pulmonary edema is an extremely serious condition that requires immediate medical treatment. In this condition, the alveoli of the lungs fill with fluid and this affects the lungs' ability to oxygenate the blood. Essentially, the body is rapidly deprived of oxygen, which can be fatal when left untreated. There are many potential causes of acute pulmonary edema, and the main ones are usually some form of cardiac dysfunction, especially heart attack and congestive heart failure. Other things can cause this condition, such as exercising at high altitudes (HAPE or high-altitude pulmonary edema), being exposed to toxic chemicals that damage the lungs, lung infections such as pneumonia, or kidney failure.

Acute pulmonary edema is usually so named because it occurs quite suddenly, although some people may show signs of pulmonary edema that is more gradual. When acute pulmonary edema occurs, there are a number of symptoms associated with it. These may include coughing up foamy saliva that may be pink or tinged with blood, having difficulty breathing, feeling short of breath, wheezing, heavy sweating, anxiety, chest pain, pale clammy skin, and a choking feeling . People will also tend to feel much worse if they lie down, and may panic if asked to do so.

The gradual form of pulmonary edema may be noticeable over a longer period of time. It could include trouble exercising, trouble going to bed at night, and trouble breathing. Fluid retention tends to be common, and people can gain weight quickly. Ankles and legs may look swollen.

Whether pulmonary edema occurs quickly or people suffer more gradually, both sets of symptoms should be taken seriously and require immediate medical attention. The gradual type can easily progress to an acute type and this is not a condition to be ignored. The body is starving for oxygen and this affects all its systems.

Doctors will tend to look for the cause immediately when a patient develops acute pulmonary edema, although oxygen is usually the first treatment. Finding the underlying problem tends to involve a series of tests including blood tests, evaluation of the heart for underlying heart problems with X-rays, electrocardiograms (EKGs), and echocardiograms. Catheterization may also be required to examine the lungs. Sometimes acute pulmonary edema has a very clear cause, such as exposure to toxins, and these tests may not be necessary.

Treatment of the condition must address the body's need for oxygen and the underlying causes that result in fluid-filled air sacs. When heart failure creates the problem, surgery may be required to create better function. Pneumonia causing acute pulmonary edema may need treatment with antibiotics. People are also often given diuretics which can increase fluid production, and they may have fluid restrictions for a few days.

Even with treatment, acute pulmonary edema is sometimes fatal. This may be the case when there is extreme and significant damage to the lungs or other organs. However, many times this condition can be managed successfully if treatment is done early. The most important thing for people to remember is that time is of the essence. The symptoms of this condition need immediate attention and should never be ignored.

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