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Every minute, the average human breathes in around 13 pints of air, exhaling around 17 milliliters of water per hour. The mechanics of breathing reveals that the average human takes in around 12 breaths per minute. Human life is associated with many functions of vital organs, and one of the most important is the lungs that facilitate breathing, driving the highly complex respiratory system. With so much revolving around the functionality of lungs it is hard to imagine leading life, normally or near normally, with just one lung. One of the most intriguing questions related to health is can you survive with one lung? Like many questions, this does not have a straight answer – there are many conditions for an affirmative response. Here is a good, evidence backed look at this question to clear the air.

What are the primary functions of the lung? Can you survive with one lung?

The primary functions of the lung are to inhale oxygen from the atmosphere and ensure that it reaches the red blood cells. Additionally, the lungs help the body to exhale CO2, apart from controlling the pH of blood by regulating the CO2. Most individuals are likely to be unaware that the lungs have an important role in regulating blood pressure by converting angiotensin I into angiotensin II. With multiple vital functions, it may be tough to look at the answer to the question – can you survive with one lung? However, contrary to opinion, it is possible for humans to live with one lung, albeit with certain conditions that need to be strictly followed. Perhaps the biggest and popular living example is Pope Francis, who still leads a near normal life with just one lung, aged 83.

Can you survive with one lung after removal? What are the reasons for removal?

Lobectomy and pneumonectomy are popular reasons for removal of the lung. This is because of one of multiple reasons. Lobectomy refers to the surgical removal of a part of the lung. Effectively, this is not the removal of a lung, but the removal of specific lobe(s) from either lung. The left lung has two lobes, while the right lung has three lobes, and the procedure refers to the removal of one of these lobes. Similarly, pneumonectomy refers to the removal of one lung due to one many possible reasons – for instance, cancer, trauma or other medical conditions. This procedure which involves the surgical removal of either of the two lungs, results in the sac filling up with fluid, after the lung removal. Before we look at the question – can you survive with one lung, it is essential to look at the advances in organ transplant.

What are the success rates of organ transplantation?

Presently, a little over 60% of patients who have received lung transplantation, as a replacement for lungs that have been fully removed, are expected to survive for three years or more. The impressive survival rates are mainly because of the rapid advances in immune suppression drugs. These drugs have helped the body to not reject transplanted organs, thereby accepting the organs, and functioning near normally. There are very few instances of individuals without both lungs surviving with life support machines. Therefore, it is quite conclusive that human life is virtually impossible without lungs. However, under the right circumstances, with responsible life style, it is possible for individuals to live near normal lives with just one lung. Let us look at required changes that are expected of individuals with just one lung, as we answer the question – can you survive with one lung?

Can you survive with one lung and lead a life with normal activities and pace of life?

As mentioned above, the affirmative answer to the question – can you survive with one lung – comes with multiple preconditions. While the conditions are more or less simple to meet, it is essential, in order to lead a life without complications. The first change that is required is the need to slow down the pace of life and activities. This can be fully understood only when there is realization that one lung will be expected to support functions that were earlier carried out by two. The sac within which the lungs are positioned will fill up and take up the vacant space created with the removal of the lung. The lung that remains will expand to take up the space and thereby have the capability to offer a little over two thirds of the original functionality of both lungs. However, this reduction in one third ability of the lungs will cause severe discomfort among individuals who attempt to lead lives fully normally.

Slowing down activities and pace of life is not just about movement or sporting activities. It is also about regular, routine movements that one takes for granted. For instance, getting off a chair and moving has to be controlled and not with the same speed as earlier. Measured movements and limited exertion is mandatory as pushing the lungs beyond the capacity can result in a black out, and other possible serious complications. Depending on the age of the individual and the absence of co-morbidity it is possible for individuals to take part in limited physical activities after a point of time, by training their bodies to push themselves a bit. While the answer to the question – can you survive with one lung is yes, it is possible only with changes.


Can you survive with one lung for long? Will it affect life expectancy?

Let’s go back to the well-known example of Pope Francis – he had one lung removed more than forty years ago, and he is still leading a life that is as normal as possible with a hectic schedule for an 83 year old. Therefore the answer to the question – can you survive with one lung for long is yes, but only with restrictions on certain activities. For instance, smoking of any type is certainly a risk aggravator. Diet needs to be in control and individuals need to ensure that respiratory infections are treated effectively before it degenerates to a difficult situation. Life expectancy will certainly not be affected by the removal of one lung, provided the individual leads a responsible life – caring for respiratory health. The possibility of the condition affecting life expectancy arises when the individual does not have other health issues that could impact organ health, especially the respiratory system. Individuals need to be extra careful about contracting respiratory diseases with proper breathing therapy to facilitate removal of fluid from the lungs, which is a key function of the lungs, apart from inhaling air.

Absence of externally visible symptoms

One of the problems faced by individuals with the condition is the fact that there are no externally visible symptoms. For instance, differently abled individuals have discernible symptoms which make it easy for others to understand that the individuals abilities are different. However, individuals whose internal organs are compromised do not have any externally visible symptoms. This makes it difficult to easily cope with the pressures and expectations of routines. While the answer to the question can you survive with one lung is affirmative, it is extremely challenging for patients to be able to fit into normal routines. This is especially true in settings where others are unaware of the condition of the patient. It is impossible for an individual with one lung to lead a fully normal life like others with both lungs. Regardless of the conditioning of the body and the fitness levels, activities cannot be at par with those of others. While it is possible to indulge in many activities, there is a limit to what can be attempted and to the extent any activity can be pursued.

Can you survive with one lung after Pneumonectomy

The most common reason for pneumonectomy is lung cancer, while other reasons include tuberculosis, congenital ailments of the lung, and traumatic injury. The answer to the question can you survive with one lung after pneumonectomy is linked to possible adverse effects of the surgical removal of the lung. For instance, patients with one lung are at high risk of exposure to certain conditions such as pneumonia, respiratory failure, impaired blood flow to the heart, and impact on the rhythm of heart beats. Another complication that is effectively one of the most serious among all complications is the fact that individuals with one lung are at high risk during procedures that involve anesthesia. For instance, an individual with one lung, who needs to undergo some procedure for some other condition where anesthesia is involved, is considered as a high risk patient. This makes it necessary for individuals to ensure that good health is maintained always to prevent the onset of any medical condition that may aggravate and manifest to serious conditions.

Shortness of breath is common among patients with one lung

While it is medically possible for an individual to survive with one lung, the issues faced include shortness of breath for simple activities. This however, depends on the health condition of the individual and habits. For instance, a smoker who has one lung removed is more likely to experience shortness of breath for a long time for simple activities. An individual with a health respiratory system who has one lung removed will experience shortness of breath for activities that are strenuous or intense in nature. The answer to the question can you survive with one lung is Yes, subject to extra car on the part of individuals undergoing the procedure. In all cases, the removal of one lung is often a decision that does not have any alternative or option. Therefore, it is entirely up to the patient and the support circle to take necessary precautions and care.


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