Lung Abscess

Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on November 3, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on December 3, 2013

What Is a Lung Abscess?

A lung abscess is a bacterial infection that occurs in the lung tissue. The infection causes tissue to die, and pus collects in that space. A lung abscess can be challenging to treat. This condition can be life threatening.

What Causes a Lung Abscess?

Lung abscesses can be classified as primary or secondary. They develop from different strains of bacteria and have different causes.

Primary abscesses often develop from lung infections, such as pneumonia. Secondary abscesses often develop because of other issues, such as obstructions, abnormalities of the lungs, foreign materials, or other infections.

Aspirating foreign matter while sedated or unconscious, either through intoxication or anesthesia, can also cause a lung abscess. The inhaled material often comes from an infection in the mouth or respiratory tract or stomach.

Who Is at Risk for a Lung Abscess?

People who suffer from alcoholism or have recently been ill (especially with pneumonia) have a high risk of developing a lung abscess. The risk is also high for people who have recently been under anesthesia, sedation, or unconsciousness from injury.

What Are the Symptoms of a Lung Abscess?

The most noticeable symptom of a lung abscess is a productive cough. The contents that are coughed up may be bloody or pus-like, with a foul odor.

Other symptoms include bad breath, fever with chills, chest pain, and shortness of breath. Sweating or night sweats, weight loss, and fatigue can also indicate a lung abscess.

How Is a Lung Abscess Diagnosed?

To diagnose a lung abscess, your doctor will first assess your health history. He or she will review recent operations where anesthesia was used. If an abscess is suspected, your doctor will analyze the sputum, or pus. Your doctor might also use imaging tools, such as an X-ray or a CT scan, to look at where the infection is in the lungs and rule out other conditions, such as cancer or emphysema. For more serious infections, your doctor might perform a procedure to take a sample from the abscess.

If your doctor thinks a foreign material has entered the lungs, he or she might insert a bronchoscope into the windpipe to locate it.

How Is a Lung Abscess Treated?

The primary treatment for a lung abscess is antibiotics. Long-term use of the medication might be necessary for up to six months. In addition, your doctor might suggest at-home treatments including deep breathing and drainage techniques. Lifestyle changes such as not smoking and drinking more fluids may also be suggested.

Another option is surgery. A tube can be inserted into the lungs to drain pus from the abscess.

In rare cases, a lung abscess can rupture. This is a serious medical concern. Another potential complication is infection spreading to other parts of the body.

What Is the Outlook for a Lung Abscess?

A lung abscess treated with antibiotics can heal without complications. People with suppressed immune systems, with underlying health conditions, or without access to healthcare are more susceptible to adverse outcomes. The condition can be fatal.

Chronic abscess or an abscess left untreated could lead to chronic lung disease, weight loss, anemia, or other lung issues.

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