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What Are the Risks of Lung Transplant?

A lung transplant can improve your quality of life and extend your lifespan. The first year after the transplant is the most critical. This is when the risk of complications is highest.

In recent years, short-term survival after lung transplant has improved. Recent data on single-lung transplants show that:

  • About 78 percent of patients survive the first year
  • About 63 percent of patients survive 3 years
  • About 51 percent of patients survive 5 years

Survival rates for double-lung transplants are slightly better. Recent data show that the median survival for single-lung recipients is 4.6 years. The median survival for double-lung recipients is 6.6 years. Talk with your doctor about what these figures may mean for you.

Complications

The major complications of lung transplant are rejection and infection.

Rejection

Your immune system will regard your new lung as a "foreign object." It will create antibodies (proteins) against the lung. This may cause your body to reject the new organ.

To prevent this, your doctor will prescribe medicines to suppress your immune system. You’ll need to take these medicines for the rest of your life.

Rejection is most common in the first 6 months after surgery, but it can happen any time after the transplant. Rejection can happen slowly or suddenly. Your doctor will teach you how to spot possible signs and symptoms of rejection. If you know these signs and symptoms, you can seek treatment right away.

Signs and symptoms of rejection include:

  • Fever and flu-like symptoms
  • Chest congestion
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • New pain around the lung
  • Generally feeling unwell

If you have any of these signs or symptoms, seek medical care. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to treat the rejection and prevent complications.

These medicines may cause side effects, such as headaches, nausea (feeling sick to your stomach), and flu-like symptoms. If you have side effects, tell your doctor. He or she may change your medicines or adjust the doses.

Infection

The medicines you take to prevent the rejection of your new lung may weaken your immune system. As a result, you're more likely to get infections.

While you're in the hospital, staff will take special steps to prevent you from getting infections. After you leave the hospital, you also can take steps to prevent infections:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Take care of your teeth and gums.
  • Protect your skin from scratches and sores.
  • Stay away from crowds and from people who have colds and the flu.

Other Risks

Long-term use of medicines that suppress the immune system can cause diabetes, kidney damage, and osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). These medicines also can increase the risk of cancer. Talk with your doctor about the long-term risks of using these medicines.

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May 1, 2011