Definition & Overview

Pulmonary emergencies are life-threatening conditions that occur when a person has difficulty breathing normally. In severe cases, the patient may be unable to breathe at all. Such emergencies require immediate medical attention to prevent the failure of critical organs, such as the heart and brain.

A pulmonary emergency can occur due to an injury or the progression of a certain disease that affects the respiratory system. It could be acute (occurs suddenly), intermittent, or progressive (steadily developing over time).

In some cases, patients are able to make their way to a hospital’s emergency department. Unfortunately, if the condition is severe, the patient will need medical attention wherever he or she is located.

Cause of Condition

A pulmonary emergency can be a result of several different conditions including asthma, heart failure, bronchitis, or even a cold. It could also be a direct result of an injury to the chest that punctures the lung or throat, leaving the air passageway blocked.

Other common causes include pulmonary edema, a condition where an excessive amount of fluids enter the lungs, pneumonia, adverse reactions to allergens or certain medications, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Key Symptoms

Although the causes described above are common to both adults and children, the way an adult may display difficulty in breathing could sometimes be different than how a child would display the same problem. A good example is that adults can breathe normally through the mouth, but children commonly find it easier to breathe through the nose because their tongue is larger. Therefore, an adult would be trying to breathe harder through the mouth, but a child would be trying to breathe through the nose.

Other than breathing difficulties, patients with pulmonary emergencies could display other symptoms, such as a change in skin color, prefer to sit rather than lie down, have difficulty balancing or moving around, wheezing, anxiety, chest pains, frothy or bloody sputum, and irregular heart beats.

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

It’s important for patients who are suffering from the following conditions to receive emergency pulmonary treatment:

  • Respiratory distress - refers to conditions where the patient is having breathing difficulties
  • Respiratory failure - which means that not enough oxygen gets transferred to the blood
  • Respiratory arrest - when the person is unable to breathe at all
    Patients who have trouble breathing are provided with oxygen as soon as possible. If the patient isn’t breathing at all, the airways will be checked for any visible signs of obstruction. If the patient is choking, first aid techniques will be used to release the obstruction and allow the person to breathe normally.

Once the patient is stable, the doctor will attempt to pinpoint the exact cause of the pulmonary emergency. The next form of treatment after oxygen would be to administer nebulized bronchodilators, such as salbutamol or ipratropium unless the person is having a heart attack or breathing difficulty is caused by an injury. In such cases, treatment for the injury or medical condition would be provided immediately.

The primary goal of treatment for pulmonary emergencies is to enable the person to breathe as normally as possible. In some cases, a device may be needed if the patient is unable to breathe on his or her own accord. A pulmonary emergency will normally require a hospital stay. Most patients will need to stay in the emergency room until stabilized and then transferred to a ward. Once the patient is stable, the doctor will diagnose their condition and make a referral to the right specialist for further diagnosis and treatment.


  • American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology |
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