Find information on medical topics, symptoms, drugs, procedures, news and more, written for the health care professional.

* This is the Professional Version. *

Pulmonary Edema

by J. Malcolm O. Arnold, MD

Pulmonary edema is acute, severe left ventricular failure with pulmonary venous hypertension and alveolar flooding. Findings are severe dyspnea, diaphoresis, wheezing, and sometimes blood-tinged frothy sputum. Diagnosis is clinical and by chest x-ray. Treatment is with O 2 , IV nitrates, diuretics, and sometimes morphine and short-term IV positive inotropes, endotracheal intubation, and mechanical ventilation.

If left ventricular (LV) filling pressure increases suddenly, plasma fluid moves rapidly from pulmonary capillaries into interstitial spaces and alveoli, causing pulmonary edema. Although precipitating causes vary by age and country, about one half of cases result from acute coronary ischemia; some from decompensation of significant underlying heart failure (HF), including diastolic dysfunction HF due to hypertension; and the rest from arrhythmia, an acute valvular disorder, or acute volume overload often due to IV fluids. Drug or dietary nonadherence is often involved.

Symptoms and Signs

Patients present with extreme dyspnea, restlessness, and anxiety with a sense of suffocation. Cough producing blood-tinged sputum, pallor, cyanosis, and marked diaphoresis are common; some patients froth at the mouth. Frank hemoptysis is uncommon. The pulse is rapid and low volume, and BP is variable. Marked hypertension indicates significant cardiac reserve; hypotension with systolic BP < 100 mg Hg is ominous. Inspiratory fine crackles are widely dispersed anteriorly and posteriorly over both lung fields. Marked wheezing (cardiac asthma) may occur. Noisy respiratory efforts often make cardiac auscultation difficult; a summation gallop—merger of 3rd (S 3 ) and 4th (S 4 ) heart sounds—may be present. Signs of right ventricular (RV) failure (eg, neck vein distention, peripheral edema) may be present.


  • Clinical evaluation showing severe dyspnea and pulmonary crackles

  • Chest x-ray

  • Sometimes serum brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) or N-terminal-pro BNP (NT-pro-BNP)

  • ECG, cardiac markers, and other tests for etiology as needed

A COPD exacerbation can mimic pulmonary edema due to LV failure or even that due to biventricular failure if cor pulmonale (see Cor Pulmonale) is present. Pulmonary edema may be the presenting symptom in patients without a history of cardiac disorders, but COPD patients with such severe symptoms usually have a history of COPD, although they may be too dyspneic to relate it.

A chest x-ray, done immediately, is usually diagnostic, showing marked interstitial edema. Bedside measurement of serum BNP/NT-proBNP levels (elevated in pulmonary edema; normal in COPD exacerbation) is helpful if the diagnosis is in doubt. ECG, pulse oximetry, and blood tests (cardiac markers, electrolytes, BUN, creatinine and, for severely ill patients, ABGs) are done. Echocardiography may be helpful to determine the cause of the pulmonary edema (eg, MI, valvular dysfunction, hypertensive heart disease, dilated cardiomyopathy) and may influence the choice of therapies. Hypoxemia can be severe. CO 2 retention is a late, ominous sign of secondary hypoventilation.


  • Treatment of cause

  • O 2

  • IV diuretic

  • Nitrates

  • IV inotropes

  • Morphine

  • Ventilatory assistance

Initial treatment includes identifying the cause; 100% O 2 by nonrebreather mask; upright position; furosemide 0.5 to 1.0 mg/kg IV or by continuous infusion 5 to 10 mg/h; nitroglycerin 0.4 mg sublingually q 5 min, followed by an IV drip at 10 to 20 mcg/min, titrated upward at 10 mcg/min q 5 min as needed to a maximum 300 mcg/min if systolic BP is > 100 mm Hg. Morphine, 1 to 5 mg IV once or twice, has long been used to reduce severe anxiety and the work of breathing but is decreasingly used, as noninvasive ventilatory assistance with bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) is helpful if hypoxia is significant. If CO 2 retention is present or the patient is obtunded, tracheal intubation and assisted ventilation are required (see Airway Establishment and Control : Tracheal Intubation).

Specific additional treatment depends on etiology:

  • For acute MI or another acute coronary syndrome, thrombolysis or direct percutaneous coronary angioplasty with or without stent placement

  • For severe hypertension, an IV vasodilator

  • For supraventricular or ventricular tachycardia, direct-current cardioversion

  • For rapid atrial fibrillation, cardioversion is preferred. To slow the ventricular rate, an IV β-blocker, IV digoxin, or cautious use of an IV Ca channel blocker

In patients with acute MI, fluid status before onset of pulmonary edema is usually normal, so diuretics are less useful than in patients with acute decompensation of chronic HF and may precipitate hypotension. If systolic BP falls < 100 mm Hg or shock develops, IV dobutamine and an intra-aortic balloon pump (counterpulsation) may be required.

Some newer drugs, such as IV BNP (nesiritide) and Ca-sensitizing inotropic drugs (levosimendan, pimobendan), vesnarinone, and ibopamine, may have initial beneficial effects but do not appear to improve outcomes compared to standard therapy, and mortality may be increased.

Once patients are stabilized, long-term HF treatment is begun (see Heart Failure (HF) : Treatment).

Key Points

  • Acute pulmonary edema can result from acute coronary ischemia, decompensation of underlying HF, arrhythmia, an acute valvular disorder, or acute volume overload.

  • Patients have severe dyspnea, diaphoresis, wheezing, and sometimes blood-tinged frothy sputum.

  • Clinical examination and chest x-ray are usually sufficient for diagnosis; ECG, cardiac markers, and sometimes echocardiography are done to identify cause.

  • Treat the cause and give O 2 and IV furosemide and/or nitrates as needed; try noninvasive ventilatory assistance initially but use tracheal intubation and assisted ventilation if necessary.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

  • Drug Name
    Select Brand Names
  • No US brand name

* This is a professional Version *