Sometimes, a dysfunctional heart is to blame for one’s breathlessness. This is the case with pulmonary edema or oedema, a condition where there is excess fluid in the lungs, particularly in the alveoli, or tiny air sacs, causing difficulty breathing.
According to the online health information provider WebMD, “Normally when you take a breath, your lungs fill with air. If you have pulmonary edema, they fill with fluid instead. When that happens, oxygen from the air can’t get from the lungs into the blood where it’s needed.”
The usual source of the problem is a heart problem. Patient, an independent health platform, explains that when the heart fails to pump blood to the body efficiently, the amount of blood that stays in the veins, the tubes that take blood through the lungs to the left side of the heart, increases.
“As the pressure in these blood vessels increases, fluid is pushed into the air spaces (alveoli) in the lungs. This fluid reduces normal oxygen movement through the lungs, which can lead to shortness of breath,” the site said.
But there are cases when pulmonary edema is triggered by other causes. These causes include acute respiratory distress syndrome; exposure to ammonia, chlorine and other toxins; acute kidney injury or chronic kidney disease; near-drowning incidents; viral infections; and being in high altitudes.
A sudden attack of pulmonary edema is called acute pulmonary edema, which, WebMD warns, can be life-threatening. One is advised to seek immediate medical help when one is experiencing any of the following: sudden shortness of breath; trouble breathing with a lot of sweating; bubbly breathing; coughing up pink, frothy spit; blue- or gray-looking skin; lightheadedness; and dizziness.
Chronic pulmonary edema is the type that develops over time. Among the signs and symptoms associated with it are tiredness, weight gain, more breathing problems than usual during physical activities, swollen legs and feet, trouble breathing when lying down and waking up at night with a breathless feeling.
There are several ways in which doctors diagnose pulmonary edema. The most basic steps are examining a patient’s medical history, checking the blood pressure and listening for noises in the lungs or murmurs in the heart using a stethoscope.
Several tests may need to be conducted: a chest X-ray to see signs of abnormalities in the heart and lungs; heart tests — like echocardiogram and electrocardiogram — so that the doctor will know if there are problems with the heart’s muscle and rhythm; and a blood test to check the levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide and salt, and the presence of a substance called natriuretic peptide.
Left untreated, patient notes, the condition may result in the increased pressure in the right side of the heart and cause the right ventricle to fail, and the failure of that ventricle may lead to the fluid swelling of the legs and the tummy, as well as congestion and swelling of the liver.
WebMD says treatment depends on the cause of the pulmonary edema. A diuretic may be prescribed to lower the pressure in the heart and lungs, and several lifestyle changes may be recommended, including consumption of lots of vegetables and fruits, regular exercise, quitting smoking and losing weight.