Lung transplantRisks

A lung transplant is a complex operation and the risk of complications is high.

A lung transplant is a complex operation and the risk of complications is high.

Some complications are related to the operation itself. Others are a result of the immunosuppressive medicine, which is needed to prevent your body rejecting the new lungs.

Reimplantation response

Reimplantation response is a common complication affecting almost all people with a lung transplant.

The effects of surgery and the interruption to the blood supply cause the lungs to fill with fluid.

Symptoms include:

The symptoms are usually at their worst 5 days after the transplant.

These problems will gradually improve, and most people are free of symptoms by 10 days after their transplant.

Rejection

Rejection is a normal reaction of the body. When a new organ is transplanted, your body's immune system treats it as a threat and produces antibodies against it, which can stop it working properly. 

Most people experience rejection, usually during the first 3 months after the transplant.

Shortness of breath, extreme tiredness (fatigue) and a dry cough are all symptoms of rejection, although mild cases may not always cause symptoms.

Acute rejection usually responds well to treatment with steroid medicine.

Bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome

Bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome (BOS) is another form of rejection that typically occurs in the first year after the transplant, but could occur up to a decade later.

In BOS, the immune system causes the airways inside the lungs to become inflamed, which blocks the flow of oxygen through the lungs.

Symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • a dry cough
  • wheezing

BOS may be treated with additional immunosuppressant medicine.

Post-transplantation lymphoproliferative disorder

After having a lung transplant, your risk of developing a lymphoma (usually a non-Hodgkin lymphoma) is increased. Lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects white blood cells.

This is known as post-transplantation lymphoproliferative disorder (PTLD).

PTLD occurs when a viral infection (usually the Epstein-Barr virus) develops as a result of the immunosuppressants that are used to stop your body rejecting the new organ.

PTLD affects around 1 in 20 people who have a lung transplant. Most cases occur within the first year of the transplant.

It can usually be treated by reducing or withdrawing immunosuppressant therapy.

Lymphoma Action has more information about lymphoma.

Infection

The risk of infection for people who have received a lung transplant is higher than average for a number of reasons, including:

  • immunosuppressants weaken the immune system, which means an infection is more likely to take hold and a minor infection is more likely to progress to a major infection
  • people often have an impaired cough reflex after a transplant, which means they're unable to clear mucus from their lungs, providing an ideal environment for infection
  • surgery can damage the lymphatic system, which usually protects against infection
  • people may be resistant to 1 or more antibiotics as a result of their condition, particularly those with cystic fibrosis

Common infections after a transplant include:

Long-term use of immunosuppressants

Taking immunosuppressant medicine is necessary following any type of transplant, although they do increase your risk of developing other health conditions.

Kidney disease

Kidney disease is a common long-term complication.

It's estimated 1 in 4 people who receive a lung transplant will develop some degree of kidney disease a year after the transplant.

About 1 in 14 people will experience kidney failure within a year of their transplant, rising to 1 in 10 after 5 years.

Diabetes

Diabetes, specifically type 2 diabetes, develops in around 1 in 4 people a year after the transplant.

Diabetes is treated using a combination of:

  • lifestyle changes, such as taking regular exercise
  • medicine, such as metformin or injections of insulin

High blood pressure

High blood pressure develops in around half of all people a year after a lung transplant and in 8 out of 10 people after 5 years.

High blood pressure can develop as a side effect of immunosuppressants or as a complication of kidney disease.

Like diabetes, high blood pressure is treated using a combination of lifestyle changes and medicine.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis (weakening of the bones) usually arises as a side effect of immunosuppressant use.

Treatment options for osteoporosis include vitamin D supplements (which help strengthen bones) and a type of medicine known as bisphosphonates, which help maintain bone density.

Cancers

People who have received a lung transplant have an increased risk of developing cancer at a later date.

This would usually be 1 of the following:

Because of this increased risk, regular check-ups for these sorts of cancers may be recommended.

Page last reviewed: 04/06/2019
Next review due: 04/06/2022