More than 1 million people are admitted to medical facilities each year with a diagnosis of pulmonary edema related to problems with their heart. When these people arrive for medical assistance, they may be clutching their chests, having difficulty breathing, and possibly coughing up bloody phlegm.

While some cases of pulmonary edema develop slowly over a long period, other forms of the condition appear much more quickly. One type, called flash pulmonary edema, can appear seemingly out of nowhere.

This article will give you more details on the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for flash pulmonary edema.

To understand what flash pulmonary edema is, it’s important to first understand pulmonary edema in general.

Pulmonary edema is a condition in which fluid fills the lungs and eventually collects in the lung’s air sacs, making it hard to breathe.

There are a number of different forms of pulmonary edema:

  • Cardiogenic pulmonary edema: This type occurs as a result of increased pressure in the heart.
  • Noncardiogenic pulmonary edema: This is when pulmonary edema is the result of causes unrelated to the heart.
  • Chronic pulmonary edema: This is when pulmonary edema builds slowly over time, with symptoms gradually increasing.
  • Acute pulmonary edema: This is pulmonary edema that occurs suddenly. It is extremely serious and requires immediate medical care. (It’s important to note that even in cases in which symptoms come on quickly, people with this condition often has a history of heart disease, hypertension, or other risk factors.)
  • Flash pulmonary edema: This is a type of acute pulmonary edema and a particularly dramatic form of acute decompensated heart failure. As its name indicates, this type of pulmonary edema can come on extremely quickly.

Flash pulmonary edema is often the result of an abrupt change in the heart muscle or its functioning, as in the case of a heart attack.

While heart conditions like congestive heart failure are a common cause of pulmonary edema, other potential causes include:

  • pneumonia
  • trauma
  • inhalation of toxic chemicals
  • certain medications
  • travel to or exercise at high elevations

What is congestive heart failure?

Congestive heart failure is a chronic progressive condition in which fluid fills up the heart and causes it to pump ineffectively.

When the heart cannot pump out enough of the blood it gets from the lungs, blood can back up into the veins that take blood through the lungs. This increased pressure may cause fluid to push through the blood vessel walls into the lungs’ air sacs. This is how congestive heart failure can lead to pulmonary edema.

Symptoms of congestive heart failure include:

When congestive heart failure is caught early, it’s possible to manage the condition with lifestyle habits, medications, and monitoring. However, once it reaches later stages, cures are not available and life expectancy may be limited.

Was this helpful?

Are there other flash pulmonary edema risk factors?

Other risk factors for flash pulmonary edema — and pulmonary edema in general — can include:

Symptoms of flash pulmonary edema can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • a feeling of drowning and anxiety
  • cold, clammy skin
  • chest pain
  • dizziness and excessive sweating
  • pink or blood-colored phlegm

Any pulmonary edema that comes on quickly is potentially life threatening.

The outlook for people with forms of pulmonary edema, including flash pulmonary edema, isn’t always positive.

Pulmonary edema can lead to low oxygen in the blood, which can cause serious organ damage throughout the body.

A 2002 study with 172 participants found that the rate of discharge after pulmonary edema was about 74% and that only 50% of participants survived for 1 year.

When to seek emergency medical care

Flash pulmonary edema can be serious if not treated immediately. Call 911 or your local emergency number if you experience:

  • sudden shortness of breath
  • a feeling of suffocation
  • lots of sweating along with breathing difficulty
  • a blue or gray appearance to your skin
  • confusion
  • coughing up phlegm that looks pink or has blood in it
  • a bubbly, wheezing, or gasping sound when breathing
  • a big drop in blood pressure that causes lightheadedness, dizziness, or weakness
Was this helpful?

Treatment for pulmonary edema typically includes additional oxygen and medication.

Medications a healthcare professional may prescribe to help treat pulmonary edema include:

  • Diuretics: These medications can help decrease the pressure caused by excess fluid in the heart and lungs.
  • Blood pressure drugs: This class of drugs can help manage the high or low blood pressure that can occur with pulmonary edema. Examples include nitroglycerin (Nitromist, Nitrostat) and nitroprusside (Nitropress).
  • Inotropes: Individuals with severe heart failure may receive these through an IV to help keep the heart pumping and maintain blood pressure.
  • Morphine: This medication can help with shortness of breath and anxiety. However, some medical professionals believe that the risks outweigh the benefits, so they may not prescribe it.

It’s also important to address the underlying cause of the pulmonary edema as soon as possible. This may require additional treatments and medications.

Flash pulmonary edema comes on quickly and can leave an individual gasping for air or coughing up bloody phlegm. This condition is often caused by heart failure and may occur without much warning.

This is a serious medical condition and requires immediate treatment. It’s important to call 911 as soon as you are aware that someone is displaying symptoms.