Pulmonary contusion is bruising in or on a person’s lungs. Blood leaks into the lung tissue and can stop the lungs from working properly. Bruising of the lungs can happen due to blunt trauma, such as during a car accident or fall.

When people breathe in, air enters their lungs. Once the air is inside, blood cells absorb oxygen from the air and discard carbon dioxide, which a person breathes out.

If a person has bruising of the lungs, blood may be in the spaces where these gases need to be, so the exchange cannot happen. This can make breathing difficult.

This article explains what pulmonary contusion is and how doctors treat it. It also looks at symptoms and situations that could be life threatening.

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As with most injuries, symptoms of a bruised lung can range from mild to severe.

A 2023 paper highlights that symptoms often include difficulty breathing and severe coughing, though some people may be asymptomatic. Other potential symptoms include:

Some people experience inflammation because the lung bruising triggers their immune response.

The 2023 paper notes that severe inflammation can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), where the person’s lungs are so damaged that they cannot supply enough oxygen to their organs.

People can experience bruising of the lungs following blunt trauma, such as during a car accident or fall, but other chest injuries can cause it too. For instance, blast injuries from explosions or crushing injuries can also bruise a person’s lungs.

Children are at risk of significantly more severe lung contusions, as their chest bones are more flexible and less rigid than those of adults.

Doctors will often perform a physical exam to see whether a person has bruised lungs. They may check blood pressure, airways, and breathing and measure the amount of oxygen in the person’s blood.

They may also ask the person how they acquired the injury and examine their medical history.

According to a 2019 article, many people do not experience symptoms immediately, and breathing difficulties may develop over a few days.

Doctors may be able to anticipate this if they know the nature of the person’s initial injury. They will usually monitor people for between 24 and 48 hours.

Doctors may also recommend imaging tests to look for bruising. These include X-rays, ultrasounds, and CT scans.

According to the 2019 article, many people with mild pulmonary contusions heal without treatment within 3–7 days.

Initially, doctors may offer supportive treatments to help the person breathe and keep their airways clear. This may include keeping the person seated in a reclining position and encouraging coughing. Doctors will also often prescribe painkillers.

If a person is experiencing breathing difficulties, doctors may recommend oxygen or mechanical ventilation.

Sometimes people develop pneumonia or ARDS. Doctors may treat these with antibiotics.

Anyone who experiences blunt force trauma to their chest should speak with a doctor, particularly if they experience severe shortness of breath or coughing up blood.

These injuries are often the result of car accidents, and the person may already be in the emergency room.

Most people with severe bruising develop symptoms within a few hours.

Here are the answers to frequently asked questions about bruised lungs.

How long does it take for a bruised lung to heal?

A 2023 article notes that most people with bruised lungs heal within 5–7 days. However, if the bruising is severe, affecting 20% or more of the lungs, people are more likely to develop complications that will increase the recovery time.

Is a bruised lung life threatening?

Bruised lungs are not automatically life threatening, but complications, such as ARDS or pneumonia, can be. Bruised lungs can also lead to respiratory failure when a person’s vital organs do not get enough oxygen.

Will a bruised lung show up on a CT scan?

Chest CT scans are an accurate way of diagnosing pulmonary contusion. High resolution scans may be able to detect bruising immediately after the trauma and can help doctors identify people at higher risk of ARDS and pneumonia.

Pulmonary contusion is bruising in or on a person’s lungs. It is usually the result of blunt force trauma, from a car accident, for example.

Most people recover well without additional treatment, but some people can develop breathing difficulties, including respiratory failure, pneumonia, and ARDS.