When your immune system detects an infection, an abscess can quickly form. As dead cells, bacteria, and other debris build up, the body forms an abscess to isolate and control the infection, but, if left untreated, the infected mass can become dangerous. You can get an abscess almost anywhere in your body, and some people develop these infections in their lung. Learn below about what causes a lung abscess and find out about the treatment options available to you.
Causes and risk factors
Patients develop lung abscesses for several reasons. Most commonly, an infection develops when you inhale bacteria that normally live in the throat or mouth. If these germs get into your respiratory system, they can cause an infection that eventually leads to an abscess. An infection often occurs when the body's natural defense mechanisms are weak or not working. For example, if you are unconscious or under sedation, germs can more easily get into the lungs because you can't cough.
In other patients, a lung abscess forms because of another underlying problem, such as a chest infection or pneumonia. An obstruction in your airways can also lead to a lung abscess because secretions build up behind the blockage. People normally only develop one abscess, but it's possible to get multiple infections in one or both lungs. For example, people who inject drugs with a dirty needle are at high risk of multiple lung abscesses.
If you don't treat a lung abscess, the risk of serious complications increases. Over time, the infection will become more serious, and you may need to go to a hospital for emergency care. Complications can include a condition called a septic embolism. This occurs when part of the abscess breaks away and moves to a vulnerable part of the body, like the heart. If the embolism blocks blood to the heart, you could die.
Left untreated, most lung abscesses rupture. This event releases sputum and pus into the airways, which you will normally cough up, but the abscess also leaves a cavity in the lung that can fill up with pus or liquid. This can result in a condition called empyema, which can cause permanent lung damage or death. If a serious bacterial infection causes your lung abscess, the condition could kill you within hours.
A lung abscess often develops slowly, so you won't always notice any symptoms. Nonetheless, if you have another underlying problem like pneumonia, an abscess can form quickly, with immediate, serious symptoms.
- Loss of appetite
- Sweating and fever
- Chest pain when breathing
If you have a lung abscess, the sputum you produce when you cough may smell bad, and you may see streaks of blood. If you have a chronic abscess, you may also start to lose weight.
The good news is that 80 to 90 percent of lung abscesses disappear after a course of antibiotics. A doctor will normally suggest that you start with intravenous antibiotics, as these quickly start working on the infection. You may have these antibiotics for two or three weeks, after which your doctor will switch to oral antibiotics. To get rid of the abscess, you may need to take antibiotics for up to three months.
In more serious cases (or when antibiotics don't work), your doctor will recommend other treatment types. Bronchoscopy is a routine outpatient treatment, where a doctor uses a special device to see inside your airways. A bronchoscopy can help your doctor find and remove a blockage, and he or she will sedate you during the procedure.
A doctor will normally also show you how to carry out postural drainage at home. Postural drainage allows patients to relax and regulate their breathing, so it's easier to cough up phlegm or sputum.
A lung abscess is a serious type of infection that could lead to life-threatening complications. If you believe you have the symptoms of the condition, you should urgently seek medical attention from a primary care physician at a facility such as the Monticello Clinic.