A lung transplant is a surgical procedure to replace a diseased or failing lung with a healthy lung, usually from a deceased donor. A lung transplant is reserved for people who have tried other medications or treatments, but their conditions haven't sufficiently improved.
Depending on your medical condition, a lung transplant may involve replacing one of your lungs or both of them. In some situations, the lungs may be transplanted along with a donor heart.
While a lung transplant is a major operation that can involve many complications, it can greatly improve your health and quality of life.
When faced with a decision about having a lung transplant, know what to expect of the lung transplant process, the surgery itself, potential risks and follow-up care.
Unhealthy or damaged lungs can make it difficult for your body to get the oxygen it needs to survive. A variety of diseases and conditions can damage your lungs and hinder their ability to function effectively. Some of the more common causes include:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema
- Scarring of the lungs (pulmonary fibrosis)
- High blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension)
- Cystic fibrosis
Lung damage can often be treated with medication or with special breathing devices. But when these measures no longer help or your lung function becomes life-threatening, your doctor might suggest a single-lung transplant or a double-lung transplant.
Some people with coronary artery disease may need a procedure to restore blood flow to a blocked or narrowed artery in the heart, in addition to a lung transplant. In some cases, people with serious heart and lung conditions may need a combined heart-lung transplant.
Factors that may affect your eligibility for a lung transplant
A lung transplant isn't the right treatment for everyone. Certain factors may mean you're not a good candidate for a lung transplant. While each case is considered individually by a transplant center, a lung transplant may not be appropriate if you:
- Have an active infection
- Have a recent personal medical history of cancer
- Have serious diseases such as kidney, liver or heart diseases
- Are unwilling or unable to make lifestyle changes necessary to keep your donor lung healthy, such as not drinking alcohol or not smoking
- Do not have a supportive network of family and friends
Complications associated with a lung transplant can be serious and sometimes fatal. Major risks include rejection and infection.
Risk of rejection
Your immune system defends your body against foreign substances. Even with the best possible match between you and the donor, your immune system will try to attack and reject your new lung or lungs. The risk of rejection is highest soon after the lung transplant and is reduced over time.
Your drug regimen after transplant will include medications to suppress your immune system (immunosuppressant medications) in an effort to prevent organ rejection. You'll likely take these anti-rejection drugs for the rest of your life.
Side effects of anti-rejection drugs
Anti-rejection drugs may cause noticeable side effects, including:
- Weight gain
- Facial hair
- Stomach problems
Some anti-rejection medications can also increase your risk of developing new conditions or aggravating existing conditions, such as:
- Kidney damage
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
Risk of infection
The anti-rejection drugs suppress your immune system, making your body more susceptible to infections, particularly in your lungs.
To help prevent infections, your doctor may recommend that you:
- Wash your hands regularly
- Brush your teeth and gums regularly
- Protect your skin from scratches and sores
- Avoid crowds and people who are ill
- Receive appropriate vaccinations
Preparations for a lung transplant often begin long before the surgery to place a transplanted lung. You may begin preparing for a lung transplant weeks, months or years before you receive a donor lung, depending upon the waiting time for a transplant.
Taking the first steps
If your doctor recommends that you consider a lung transplant, you'll likely be referred to a transplant center for evaluation. You're also free to select a transplant center on your own. When evaluating a lung transplant center:
- Check with your health insurance provider to see which transplant centers are covered under your insurance plan.
- Consider the number of lung transplants a center performs each year and transplant recipient survival rates by reviewing a database on the web maintained by the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients.
- Consider additional services that may be provided by a transplant center, such as support groups, assistance with travel arrangements, help finding local housing for your recovery period or information about organizations that can help with these concerns.
Once you decide where you would like to have your lung transplant, you'll need to have an evaluation to see if you're eligible for a lung transplant. During an evaluation, your doctors and transplant team may review your medical history, conduct a physical examination, order several tests, and evaluate your mental and emotional health.
Your transplant team will also discuss with you the benefits and risks of a transplant and what to expect before, during and after a transplant.
Waiting for a donor organ
If the transplant team determines that you're a candidate for a lung transplant, the transplant center will register you and place your name on a waiting list. The number of people needing lung transplants far exceeds the number of donated lungs available. Unfortunately, some people die while waiting for a transplant.
While you're on the waiting list, your medical team will closely monitor your condition and alter your treatment as needed. Your doctor may recommend healthy lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and avoiding tobacco.
Your doctors may recommend that you participate in a pulmonary rehabilitation program while you wait for a donor lung. Pulmonary rehabilitation can help you improve your health and ability to function in daily life before and after your transplant.
When a donor organ becomes available, the donor-recipient matching system administered by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) finds an appropriate match based on specific criteria, including:
- Blood type
- Size of organ compared with chest cavity
- Geographic distance between donor organ and transplant recipient
- Severity of the recipient's lung disease
- Recipient's overall health
- Likelihood that the transplant will be successful
Immediately before your transplant surgery
It may take months or even years before a suitable donor becomes available, but you must be prepared to act quickly when one does. Make sure the transplant team knows how to reach you at all times.
Keep your packed hospital bag handy — including an extra 24-hour supply of your medications — and arrange transportation to the transplant center in advance. You may be expected to arrive at the hospital within just a few hours.
Once you arrive at the hospital, you will undergo tests to make sure the lung is a good match and that you are healthy enough to have the surgery. The donor lung also must be healthy, or it will be declined by the transplant team. The transplant will be canceled if it doesn't appear that the surgery will be a success.
During your lung transplant
The procedure will be conducted with general anesthesia, so you will be unaware and won't feel any pain. You'll have a tube guided through your mouth and into your windpipe so that you can breathe.
Your surgeon will make a cut in your chest to remove your diseased lung. The main airway to that lung and the blood vessels between that lung and your heart will then be connected to the donor lung. For some lung transplants, you may be connected to a heart-lung bypass machine, which circulates your blood during the procedure.
After your lung transplant
Immediately after the surgery, you'll spend several days in the hospital's intensive care unit (ICU). A mechanical ventilator will help you breathe for a few days, and tubes in your chest will drain fluids from around your lungs and heart.
A tube in a vein will deliver strong medications to control pain and to prevent rejection of your new lung. As your condition improves, you'll no longer need the mechanical ventilator, and you'll be moved out of the ICU. Recovery often involves a one- to three-week hospital stay. The amount of time you'll spend in the ICU and in the hospital can vary.
After you leave the hospital, you'll require about three months of frequent monitoring by the lung transplant team to prevent, detect and treat complications and to assess your lung function. During this time, you'll generally need to stay close to the transplant center. Afterward, the follow-up visits are usually less frequent, and it's easier to travel back and forth for follow-up visits.
Your follow-up visits may involve laboratory tests, chest X-rays, an electrocardiogram (ECG), lung function tests, a lung biopsy and checkups with a specialist.
In a lung biopsy, doctors remove very small lung tissue samples to test for signs of rejection and infection. This test may be conducted during a bronchoscopy, in which a doctor inserts a small, flexible tube through the mouth or nose into the lungs. A light and small camera attached to the bronchoscope allows the doctor to look inside the lungs' airways. The doctor may also use special tools to remove small samples of lung tissue to test in a lab.
Your transplant team will monitor you closely and help you manage immunosuppressant medications' side effects. Your transplant team may also monitor and treat infections. Your doctor might prescribe antibiotic, antiviral or antifungal medications to help prevent infections. Your transplant team may also instruct you about ways you can help prevent infections at home.
You'll also be monitored for any signs or symptoms of rejection, such as shortness of breath, fever, coughing or chest congestion. It's important to let your transplant team know if you notice any signs or symptoms of rejection.
You'll generally need to make several long-term adjustments after your lung transplant, including:
- Taking immunosuppressants. You'll need to take immunosuppressant medications for life to suppress your immune system and prevent rejection of the donor lung or lungs.
Managing medications, therapies and a lifelong care plan. Your doctor may give you instructions to follow after your transplant. It's important to take all your medications as your doctor instructs, check your lung function as directed by your doctor, attend follow-up appointments and follow a lifelong care plan.
It's a good idea to set up a daily routine for taking your medications so that you won't forget. Keep a list of all your medications with you at all times in case you need emergency medical attention, and tell all your doctors what you take each time you're prescribed a new medicine.
Living a healthy lifestyle. Living a healthy lifestyle is key to sustaining your new lung. Your doctor may advise you to not use tobacco products and to limit alcohol use. Following a nutritious diet also can help you stay healthy.
Exercise is an extremely important part of rehabilitation after your lung transplant and will begin within days of your surgery. Your health care team will likely work with you to design an exercise program that's right for you. Your doctor may recommend pulmonary rehabilitation — a program of exercise and education that may help improve your breathing and daily functioning — after your transplant.
Emotional support. Your new medical therapies and the stress of having a lung transplant may make you feel overwhelmed. Many people who have had a lung transplant feel this way.
Talk to your doctor if you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Transplant centers often have support groups and other resources to help you manage your condition.
A lung transplant can substantially improve your quality of life. The first year after the transplant — when surgical complications, rejection and infection pose the greatest threats — is the most critical period.
Although some people have lived 10 years or more after a lung transplant, only about half the people who undergo the procedure are still alive after five years.