Lung transplant: everything you need to know

Lung transplantation is a surgical procedure in which one or both diseased lungs are replaced by healthy ones, contributed by a deceased donor. It is a complex surgery that significantly improves the quality of life of a person.

The first successful lung transplants were performed in the 1960s by Dr. James Hardy and then by professional Denton A. Cooley in 1968. The initial patient was a two-month-old girl with congestive heart failure and recurrent pneumonia. .

This type of procedure is done when a person has terminal lung disease or some serious pathology that has proven resistant to conventional treatments. In any case, the lung transplant candidate must meet some requirements to be eligible.

Why is a lung transplant performed?

Typically, a lung transplant is only performed when all available treatments have been carried out to correct lung failure and these have not yielded results. Usually, It is indicated for people under 75 years of age who have a serious pathology In the lungs.

Some of the diseases that can lead to a transplant of this type are the following:

Lung transplantation can be done with a single organ or with both.


Candidates for lung transplantation must meet certain requirements, as we have already mentioned. Only if they conform to them are they eligible for the procedure. Among the criteria to take into account are the following:

  • Age: it is established that the maximum must be 75 years, although above 55 it is considered to be at greater risk.
  • Body mass index: must not be more than 35.
  • Risk of dying: It is recommended in patients who have a 50% risk of death during the next two years if the transplant is not performed.
  • High probability of survival after transplantation: based on your general health.
  • Commitments: the transplant recipient should make a firm commitment not to smoke again, not use psychoactive drugs, and participate in a pulmonary rehabilitation program.

Those who have an active infection are ruled out. Also those who have had cancer in the last two years or have a serious health problem in another organ. Likewise, those who are malnourished or who do not have a support network that guarantees adherence to post-transplant treatment.

Read also: Is it possible to regain lung health?

Lung transplant risks

Lung transplantation is complex surgery and has considerable risks. The most important are rejection and infection. The first occurs when the patient's immune system attacks the transplanted lung or lungs.

Anti-rejection medications are used to prevent this from happening, but they can cause side effects, such as weight gain, stomach problems, and facial hair growth. These drugs also make a person more prone to developing other diseases, such as diabetes, osteoporosis, kidney failure, and high blood pressure.

For what has been said, after a transplant of this type the patient must observe strict hygiene measures and avoid contact with crowds or sick people. Finally, another possible risk is the formation of clots after surgery, due to increased blood clotting.

How is it the procedure?

The process of performing a lung transplant begins long before the surgery takes place. After a patient has been evaluated and found eligible for the procedure, what follows is get on a waiting list until there is a donor.

While the transplant candidate awaits the donation, they must follow the medical indications regarding their lifestyle. When a lung is available for the procedure, compatibility with the patient is evaluated. If it is adequate, the transplant is carried out.


A person on the waiting list for lung transplantation should be prepared to attend the call of the doctors as soon as it occurs. It is best to have a suitcase ready with personal items and regular medications.

When the candidate arrives at the hospital, he undergoes a series of tests to check compatibility. Your general health is also assessed. If there are doubts about it, the procedure can be canceled. If everything is in order it will take place almost immediately.

Surgical intervention

Lung transplant surgery is performed under general anesthesia. If a single lung is to be replaced, the intervention lasts between four and eight hours; if both lungs are transplanted it may take between six and twelve hours.

The procedure to follow is as follows:

  • An extracorporeal circulation system is activated.
  • A cut to the side of the chest is made when only one lung is to be replaced. If they are both, the cut is made below the chest and reaches both sides of the thorax.
  • One or both lungs are removed and the blood vessels and the airway of the new organs are attached to the patient's body.
  • Probes are inserted to drain air, fluid, and blood out of the chest. These will stay there for several days, until the new lungs expand normally.
  • Once the lungs are working, the heart-lung machine is removed.


The intervened patient must stay in the hospital for a period of between 7 and 21 days. The most common is that you spend several days in the intensive care unit (ICU) after the surgery. However, each medical center has its own protocols.

The first 24 to 48 hours are crucial. During this period, a meticulous observation is carried out in which, in particular, the functioning of the lungs, heart, kidneys and mental state is evaluated. Likewise, it is verified that there are no added bleeding or hemorrhages.

The lungs can be transplanted based on medical criteria, but the patient's commitment is essential for the subsequent success of the surgery.

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The most common is that the recovery period lasts for six months, In the first instance. During the first three, a close follow-up is done to evaluate the functioning of the lungs and prevent any complications.

In this first stage, you have to go frequently to the hospital for tests that include x-rays, biopsies, laboratory tests and electrocardiograms. The reaction to medications is also monitored.

After this phase, the patient must make adjustments in his life, which include taking immunosuppressants and regularly attending therapies and consultations. The first year after lung transplantation is the most critical. Afterwards, all the risks begin to decrease.

The most common is that there are weekly consultations during the first three months; then quarterly consultations for a year. Then an annual consultation for the next 5 to 10 years.

How long is the survival after a lung transplant?

According to the available data, the average life span after a lung transplant is 5.8 years. This can vary, depending on the person's previous illness. Those with cystic fibrosis survive 8 or more years after surgery.

Patients with idiopathic interstitial pneumonia survive 4.8 years on average. 32% of those who have undergone this procedure live 10 years or more. The highest risk of death occurs during the first 12 months, so that is where controls are reinforced.