Blockages in the Lungs

When an airway in the lungs becomes blocked and causes such alarming symptoms as breathlessness, wheezing, chest tightness and coughing, immediate medical intervention is necessary. A blockage significantly reduces the lungs' ability to provide oxygen to the cells and release carbon dioxide if it is not removed or resolved. Blockages can result from trauma, infection, disease or inflammation.

Doctor looking at lung X-ray (Image: Remains/iStock/Getty Images)

Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism usually occurs when a blood clot that has developed in the deep veins of the legs or the pelvis breaks loose and travels to the lungs and lodges within the pulmonary artery. According to the American Lung Association, the clot can block blood flow through a vessel and deprive the lung tissue of blood. The most common symptom of a pulmonary embolism is sudden breathlessness; however, chest pain, palpitations, a slight fever and wheezing, along with coughing up bloodstained mucus, can also occur.

Bronchoconstriction

Many factors can cause the walls of the small bronchi and bronchioles to become inflamed and swollen, blocking the airway. The inflammation causes a number of changes, all contributing to airway narrowing. Doctors believe this inflammatory response occurs because the body releases histamine to destroy the inhaled allergens, chemicals, virus spores or bacteria. Contraction of smooth muscle in the wall of the airway produces a narrowed channel, while the blood vessels become wider within the walls of the airway, further blocking the airway. This response often causes wheezing as the air tries to pass through a significantly narrower opening.

Aspiration Pneumonia

According to MayoClinic.com, aspiration pneumonia occurs when a person inadvertently inhales food or vomit into the lungs. This sometimes happens when a person is unconscious because of trauma or illness. It can also occur if a person has difficulty swallowing, sometimes resulting from a neurological illness such as a stroke. Bacteria in the inhaled material can infect the lungs, requiring in-patient treatment to remove the cause if necessary, or possible, and to treat the bacterial infection with antibiotics.

Empyema

Empyema is the accumulation of pus in the space between the membranes of the pleura, a two-layered membrane that lines the inside of the chest cavity and the outside of the lungs. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the most common cause of empyema is an unresolved bacterial infection that spreads to and infects the pleural space. A person may experience persistent fever and chest pain. To reach a diagnosis, the doctor uses imaging techniques and withdraws pus from the pleural space for examination. This accumulation of pus can compress and block lung tissue from within the pleural space, minimizing lung volume making it difficult to breathe.

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