Can you live with one lung?

Lung Health

by Dr. Gary Schwartz

Apr 24, 2024

Your lungs are vital organs that allow you to breathe. They take in oxygen from the air you inhale and remove carbon dioxide from your body when you exhale. Oxygen is then transported to your body's cells, where it's used to produce energy in your body.

We can’t live without our lungs. But there may be rare circumstances where you may need to have one lung removed. If this happens, what does that mean for your daily life?

Can you live with one lung?

Yes, you can live with one lung. But this is not a common reality that many people will experience. If you are living with lung cancer or have a lung condition, it’s much more likely that you would have a small piece of your lung, or a lobe, removed rather than the entire lung.

You can only live with one lung if the remaining lung is fully functioning and healthy. So, in the rare case that your healthcare team may consider removing one lung, they will make sure that your body will be able to manage with just one.

Removing one lung with a pneumonectomy

If you need to have one of your lungs removed, you will have a procedure called a pneumonectomy. A pneumonectomy is a major surgery that is most often necessary for someone who is living with cancer or has a damaged lung because of an infection, trauma or congenital anomalies present at birth.

The realities of living with one lung

Living with one lung can be a significant adjustment, but with the right knowledge, the support of your healthcare team and lifestyle changes, it's possible to lead a full and active life.

The main risk of removing a lung is that the other lung might not provide enough oxygen or put significant strain on the heart. In this case, people may experience shortness of breath and will have to reduce any vigorous activities, like jogging.

To stay healthy with one lung, it's important to keep your lung strong. This means staying active and maintaining the following healthy habits:

  • Exercises like walking or swimming
  • Avoiding smoking or toxic exposures
  • Avoiding behaviors that can cause infections or blood clots
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

You can live a full life with just one lung, but it does depend on why the lung was removed in the first place. If it was due to cancer or an illness, there is a risk of the condition returning. If you had a pneumonectomy after a trauma, as long as you remain healthy, there should be no limitation on your life.

Can a lung regenerate?

No, your lung will not grow back or regenerate if it’s fully removed. But your other organs will shift around and expand into the space where your lung once was. This is very normal and a way of your body adjusting after a pneumonectomy procedure.

Living with one lung is very rare, but keeping your lungs healthy is a key part of living well. Maintain optimal lung health by not smoking, exercising regularly and going to regular screenings as advised by your doctor.

If you want to learn more about your lung health, talk to your primary care physician.

About the Author

Gary Schwartz, MD, is a thoracic surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center.

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