If you — or someone you love — needs a lung transplant, you may wonder what life after lung transplant will be like. Many people who have received a lung transplant live healthier and longer lives as a result of the surgery.
According to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, more than 30% of lung transplant recipients survived 10 years after surgery. Recovery and long-term health outcomes are different for each person. But there’s plenty you can do to take good care of yourself and help keep your new lungs healthy.
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What to Expect Right After Lung Transplant
Immediately after surgery, you’ll move to the intensive care unit (ICU). Doctors will place you on a ventilator to help you breathe until you’re strong enough to breathe on your own.
You’ll begin taking immunosuppressant drugs to keep your immune system from fighting your new lung(s). These drugs are anti-rejection drugs.
Doctors will move you to a regular patient room once you’ve gained strength. You’ll spend about three weeks:
- Seeing your transplant team to make sure your lungs are functioning.
- Making sure you are healing and aren’t developing any infections.
- Moving around to encourage air to flow in your lungs.
You may also begin specialty therapy services. If you’re having any trouble speaking or swallowing, you may see a therapist to help you regain function. You’ll also begin breathing therapy (pulmonary rehabilitation) and physical therapy to help you get stronger.
What to Expect When You Leave the Hospital After Lung Transplant
Your lung transplant recovery continues after you leave the hospital. Plan to stay close to the transplant center — within two hours — for at least two to three months after your surgery.
After leaving the hospital, you should:
- Always have a caregiver with you for the first few months.
- Take all medications and follow your doctors’ instructions.
- Avoid driving for about four weeks until the incision has healed. Your transplant team will tell you when you can begin driving.
- Stay away from crowds and people who are sick.
- Keep your incision clean and watch for fever, redness, swelling, or trouble breathing.
- Follow the eating plan your nutritionist creates for you.
Your doctor may recommend that you take short daily walks if you’re able to do so. It’s also important that you continue with any exercise program that pulmonary rehabilitation experts recommend. This can include:
- Monitoring breathing levels.
- Modifying movements for your fitness level.
- Using certain techniques to improve your breathing.
You’ll have many follow-up visits with your transplant team during the first two years after lung transplant. Your doctors will do:
- Blood tests.
- Chest X-rays.
- Bronchoscopy with biopsy (lung tissue sample).
- Pulmonary function tests.
Life After Lung Transplant: Resuming Your Activities
You may be anxious to get back to your regular activities after lung transplant. Your doctors will tell you when it’s safe for you to do so. It’s important to follow your care team’s instructions in every way.
Be sure you’re making lifestyle choices that will help keep your new lungs healthy. You should:
- Avoid smoking and all tobacco products. Don’t smoke and try to avoid being around people who are smoking.
- Exercise regularly. Take it slow as you rebuild your strength but do try to move each day. Follow the advice of your physical and pulmonary therapists to help you get stronger and breathe easier.
- Avoid drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol while taking anti-rejection drugs can increase your risk of liver damage.
- Be careful around certain pets. Talk with your transplant team about pet safety — birds, snakes, turtles, and other reptiles can cause dangerous infections. If you have cats, someone else should clean and change the litter box.
- Keep up with all regular cancer screenings and use sunscreen. Certain anti-rejection drugs can increase your risk of developing some types of cancer, including skin cancer.
If you have questions about follow-up care, trouble breathing, or signs of infection, contact your care team right away.
Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, Life After Lung Transplant: What to Expect, https://www.pulmonaryfibrosis.org/docs/default-source/programs/educational-materials/life-after-lung-transplant/post-transplant-booklet.pdf?sfvrsn=dcbb4a97_7
American Lung Association, How Pulmonary Rehab Helps You Breathe, https://www.lung.org/blog/pulmonary-rehab-helps-breathe
Dermatologic Clinics, Skin Cancer and Immunosuppression, https://www.sciencedirect.com/sdfe/pdf/download/eid/1-s2.0-S0733863518311008/first-page-pdf
UPMC Transplant Services, Lung Transplant Surgery Frequently Asked Questions, https://www.upmc.com/services/transplant/lung/process/faq
UPMC Transplant Services, Lung Transplant Surgery: Preparation and Procedure, https://www.upmc.com/services/transplant/lung/process/surgery
About Transplant Services
For more than four decades, UPMC Transplant Services has been a leader in organ transplantation. Our clinicians have performed more than 20,000 organ transplant procedures, making UPMC one of the foremost organ transplant centers in the world. We are home to some of the world’s foremost transplant experts and take on some of the most challenging cases. Through research, we have developed new therapies that provide our patients better outcomes — so organ recipients can enjoy better health with fewer restrictions. Above all, we are committed to providing compassionate, complete care that can change – and save – our patients’ lives. Visit our website to find a provider near you.