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Am J Med Sci. 1991 Dec;302(6):385-91.

Initial treatment of pulmonary edema: a physiological approach.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, University of South Alabama College of Medicine, Mobile.


An understanding of the physiological principles involved in lung fluid balance is useful in the initial treatment of pulmonary edema. Normally, a very small volume of fluid is filtered from the pulmonary vasculature into the interstitial space. This interstitial fluid enters the pulmonary lymphatics and is transferred to mediastinal lymphatics at an estimated rate of 20 ml/hr. Under abnormal circumstances, fluid filtration may occur at such a rapid rate that it overwhelms the lymphatics and interstitial space and results in alveolar flooding. This may occur as a result of increased pulmonary vascular pressure or increased vascular permeability. The two general goals of initial therapy are (1) to relieve hypoxemia and (2) to reduce pulmonary capillary pressure. Relieving hypoxemia may require the use of supplemental oxygen by nasal prongs or mask, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask, or even endotracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation. Measures to decrease preload and thereby reduce pulmonary capillary pressure include sitting the patient up, administering a loop diuretic or morphine intravenously, and in some circumstances using sublingual nitroglycerin. After initial treatment is underway, a search for and specific management of the underlying cause of pulmonary edema can proceed.

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