Can You Live With One Lung?

In some individuals, different factors ensure that they have to continue living with one lung, rather than two as in most people. This may be due to an inborn error, trauma, lifestyle or occupational diseases affecting the lungs.

The lungs are considered vital for life and are integral for everyday functioning. In this article, we will discuss the possibility of living with one lung.

Living With One Lung: How Possible Is It?

lung structure


Lung removal surgery is done to remove a whole lung (called a pneumonectomy) or a part of the affected lung (called a lobectomy). It is undertaken to rid the body of a diseased or dead and largely ineffective lung.

The concerned lung may even cause great harm to the individual if left in place. The total removal of a lung lobe leaves the individual with a single lung (simple pneumonectomy) or with a single lung and large hollow space in the chest due to the removal of other nearby structures (called an extrapleural pneumonectomy).

When a pneumonectomy is done, the affected individual will continue living with just a single lung. The remnant lung often compensates for this loss of one lung by improving performance. It is thought that it over-performs and delivers up to 70 or 80% of the total lung function before surgery.


While living with one lung may be tasking and limiting, it is, in fact, possible to live a normal life with just a single lung. For affected persons, it is better if the right lung is unaffected. This is because the larger share of normal lung functioning is carried out by the right. It is bigger than the left lung and has one more lobe.

After surgery, results vary for many. While some people are able to ride a bicycle ten miles with no serious side effects or even take part in a mini-marathon, others may require oxygen therapy when traveling by air. They may also need to take a break after changing positions from lying to standing and when climbing the stairs.

What Do The Lungs Do?


the lungs

The body is made of tiny units called cells. These cells require oxygen to live and function. The body also produces carbon dioxide, a harmful product of metabolism that needs to be eliminated from the body.

The lungs are responsible for the exchange of gases in a process called respiration. Air is inhaled and channeled into the lungs where oxygen is trapped, ready to be transported around the body. Carbon dioxide is released and readied for removal when we exhale.

How Does Respiration Take Place?



The lungs are like upside down cone-shaped sacs of air in your chest. They are able to inflate and deflate as we breathe. They inflate and deflate several thousand times daily.

The exchange of gases begins when air from the atmosphere enters the body via the nostrils or mouth. The air is channeled via small tubes to an area just before the other parts of the respiratory tree called the trachea. From here, it is led into an inverted Y-shaped structure called the bronchi (singular is bronchus). This structure is directly connected to the lungs and is responsible for funneling air into each lung. The right lung has 3 lobes while the left has 2 (to make room for the heart).

In the lungs, the bronchus divides into much smaller pipes (called bronchioles) that spread across the whole lung area. These bronchioles are about 30,000 in number and end up as small air-filled sacs or balloons called alveoli (singular is alveolus). There are about 300 million of these sacs in each lung. The gas exchange happens at the alveoli where oxygen is supplied to the blood for transportation around the body.

The lungs also help with the acid-base balance in the body, protection from disease-causing entities and production of enzymes.

Which Lung Diseases May Lead To The Removal Of A Lung?

1. Traumatic Lung Injury

In lung injury, total removal of the lung may be required to save the affected individual’s life.

2. Lung Infection


Tuberculosis is one of the leading causes of death due to infections in the world. Although it is a curable (requiring long-term therapy) and preventable (vaccines are available for protection against tuberculosis) disease, it may require a pneumonectomy in advanced cases.


Other lung infections like bronchiectasis, fungal infections, and repeated bacterial lung infection may also require a pneumonectomy.

3. Inborn Lung Disease

In some individuals, a part of their lungs or an entire lung is deformed at birth. These deformities may be treated at first with medications and/or physiotherapy. In severe cases, pneumonectomy is offered to reduce symptoms and improve survival.

4. Lung Cancer

cigarettes associated with lung cancer

Commonest in people who smoke cigarettes, lung cancer is the leading cause of lung removal all over the world. It is also one of the leading cancer types diagnosed in the world, as well as being one of the highest causes of cancer-related deaths. Lung cancer is directly related to smoking as over 80% of lung cancer cases are seen in smokers.

In treating lung cancer, the cancer type, stage (extent of spread) and the general health of the individual is put into consideration. While some people are managed by palliative care, others get treatment aimed at curing or extending life. A common modality of treatment is the offering of chemotherapy to patients before or after surgery.

If offered before surgery, chemotherapy is given to shrink the tumor (cancer clump) to a size considered removable by surgery. This is often done in individuals with lung cancer that is restricted to the lungs, rather than a case of nearby or distant spread.

5. Metastasis To The Lungs

When cancer spreads from a nearby or distant organ to the lungs, the affected lung may be removed as part of the treatment. The commonest cancers that may spread to the lungs include breast cancer and cancer of the backbone.

In Summary

Living a normal life is possible with just a single lung. Pope Francis is an example of an individual who has had a lung removal surgery as a result of an infection.

While it would difficult for him or anyone with a single lung to partake in an Olympic style 100 meters sprint, other activities of daily living would be seamless, with little or no problems.

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Zubair Abdulahi, MBBS

Dr. Zubair Abdulahi is a licensed medical practitioner with a degree in medicine and surgery who is interested in using new media to influence health decisions by providing information on health queries. He has written for top publications in Nigeria like the Guardian. When he's not working as a doctor, he enjoys the game of football as well as sight-seeing and listening to classical music.
Zubair Abdulahi, MBBS