Living With One Lung: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Older woman in physical therapy
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According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, lung cancer is the most common reason for the surgical removal of a lung—a pneumonectomy. Lung removal may also be recommended in some cases of traumatic lung injury, tuberculosis, severe infection, or lung disease. Learning to live with one lung takes time and patience. Understanding what to expect after lung removal may help you cope with the challenges ahead.

Lung Removal Recovery

Lung removal is a major surgery that dramatically affects the body’s functioning. After lung removal surgery, your lung capacity is decreased by half. In time, your remaining lung will compensate for much of this decreased capacity. Immediately after surgery, though, you’re likely to feel sore, short of breath, and extremely tired.

Most patients spend about a week in the hospital after pneumonectomy. Typically, the first night is spent in an intensive care unit (ICU). When stable and able to breathe without the assistance of a machine, you will move to a regular medical unit. Nurses will administer pain medication as needed and monitor your vital signs, including your oxygen levels.

When a lung is removed, fluid builds up in the chest cavity that once held the removed lung. It is common to feel fluid moving in your chest in the days after your surgery. (Eventually, this feeling diminishes as the body heals.)

Full healing and recovery may take months. Your doctor will instruct you to limit lifting and physical activity in the first weeks after surgery. You will likely tire very easily at first, as your body won’t be getting as much oxygen with each breath as it did when you had two lungs. Shortness of breath, particularly with activity, is normal while recovering from lung removal. Stopping what you’re doing and deliberately taking a few slow, deep breaths can calm you down and ease shortness of breath.

In time, you’ll learn how to pace and adapt your activity. Rehabilitation after lung surgery, including chest physical therapy and respiratory therapy, will help you regain your strength, get the most out of each breath, cough effectively, and more. Therapists will also arrange supplemental oxygen if you need it. Talk with your care team about the types of therapy they recommend after lung removal.

Potential Complications of Living With One Lung

Most people do well after lung removal. However, complications are possible and may include:

  • Bleeding
  • Abnormal heart rhythms

If you experience unusual chest pain, a racing or abnormally slow heartbeat or develop a fever, new cough or difficulty breathing, contact your healthcare provider. Prompt diagnosis and medical treatment, if needed, can prevent damage to your remaining lung.

Living With One Lung Life Expectancy

It’s difficult to estimate how long you’ll live after lung removal, as life expectancy depends on your age and overall health. In many cases, lung removal may actually increase your life expectancy and improve your quality of life. If you have lung cancer, for instance, removal of your lung may be your best chance at extending life. If you have lung disease other than cancer, how well your remaining lung fares will affect your life expectancy. Following your treatment plan and taking all your medications as directed will help protect your lung and respiratory health.

Your life after lung removal will likely be a bit different than before surgery. You may have to sleep more and move more slowly. You may find that you can’t work in your garden as long as you once did. You may need to adapt your approach to physical activity, including sexual intimacy.

If you are having trouble adjusting to life with one lung, tell your healthcare provider. Medical treatment, including inhaled medications, may help you breathe easier. If you are having trouble emotionally, your provider may know of support groups. Talking with others who have learned to live with one lung may help you cope.

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  1. Pneumonectomy. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/pneumonectomy#:~:text=A%20pneumonectomy%20is%20a%20type,through%20a%20series%20of%20tubes
  2. Pneumonectomy: What is it Like to Live with Just One Lung? Jocelyn McLean RN, MN. http://www.scts.com.au/Files/Pneumonectomy-What-is-it-like-to-live-with-one-lung.pdf
  3. 1 Lung, 1 Life and 100 Miles. British Lung Foundation. https://www.blf.org.uk/your-stories/1-lung-1-life-100-miles
  4. Deslauriers J, Ugalde P, Miro S, et al. Long-Term Physiological Consequences of Pneumonectomy. Semin Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 2011;23(3), 196-202. doi: 10.1053/j.semtcvs.2011.10.008. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22172356/

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 28
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