Fluid in the Lungs: cause for panic or just uncomfortable?

Fluid in the lungs

Fluid in the lungs can be something just slightly irritating or can be life-threatening. How can you know the difference and when is necessary to seek medical attention?

There are two major diagnosis when discussing fluid in the lungs: let’s take a look at those conditions, the symptoms, and the treatments for them.

Fluid in the lungs cause due to pleural effusion

What is it?

A pleural effusion is when fluid builds up outside the actual lung, but inside the lung cavity. This creates difficult in the lungs ability to expand as it normally should. Depending on what the cause of the effusion is may dictate what kind of fluid is building up. Certain disease processes will cause certain types of fluids to build up.


Diseases like congestive heart failure, liver failure, or kidney disease may cause a protein-filled fluid that is straw colored to build up outside of the lung. Traumatic injuries, like a car accident or a bad fall may cause blood to collect instead. Less commonly, large abscesses can cause pus to leak into this space.


The most common symptom for pleural effusion are shortness of breath. You may even feel like one side of your chest can breathe easier than the other if the pleural effusion is only present near one lung. If you feel you like you are having an increased difficult in breathing during your normal activities, it is almost always a good idea to seek medical attention. Your doctor can listen to your lungs with a stethoscope and check your oxygen levels to see if the fluid around the lungs is a cause for immediate concern.


After an assessment by a healthcare provider, the most definitive way to diagnose a pleural effusion is to have a chest x-ray done. This will tell your doctor where the fluid is and approximately how much fluid has accumulated. If you do not have any other history that would cause fluid build up, your doctor will probably order some more tests to check. Your heart, kidneys and liver will get checked to make sure everything is in working order. Based off of the cause of the fluid, the fluid location and amount, the next step is for treatment


If the fluid is causing you to have difficulty breathing, your doctor may look to place a small, temporary drain into the space around the lungs so that you will be able to breath normally again. The rest of the treatment is dictated by the cause of the fluid build up. For example, if the fluid is pus due to an infection or abscess, then you will be treated with medicine to fight the infection, like antibiotics.

Fluid in the lungs cause due to pulmonary edema

What is it

The other type of fluid build up in the lungs actually occurs inside of the lungs themselves


Minor amounts of fluid build up in the lungs is not uncommon. Especially during cold and flu season as bronchitis and allergies are more common. Such small amounts of fluid in the lungs is not dangerous. The body will absorb minor amounts of excess fluid. If there is too much fluid for the body to absorb, you may start to have some potentially dangerous symptoms. Some more serious causes of fluid in the lungs include smoke inhalation, kidney disease, and heart disease.


For small amounts of fluid, the most common symptom is a slightly productive cough. For larger amounts of fluid, it is important to seek medical attention. Large amounts of fluid in the lungs typically manifest in a persistent cough that is productive with a pink, frothy type sputum.


This diagnosis is often based off of an assessment by a healthcare provider and symptoms. Chest x ray will provide more information.


Like with pleural effusion, the treatment for pulmonary edema is to the treat the underlying cause for the fluid build up. Additionally, your doctor may prescribe anti-histamines, corticosteroids, diuretics, or other medications to help the fluid be eliminated from your system.

Most importantly, while fluid build up in the lungs is not uncommon, if you are having difficulty breathing or coughing up a pink and frothy substance, it is best to see a doctor.



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