According to a Vatican spokesman, the 84-year-old pontiff's diagnosis is acute laryngeal tracheitis with periodic spasms of his larynx. What this means is that he has an infected windpipe, the air passageway in his throat connecting his mouth and nose to his lungs.
The director of emergency medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Dr. Wallace Carter, told the Today program on NBC television that the condition is apparently a complication of the flu, worsened by Parkinson's disease, a degenerative brain disorder characterized by the pope's shuffling walk and stooping posture.
"It sounds like what has occurred is that the flu has attacked the larynx and trachea, which are just the pipes that lead the air down to the lungs, and it has resulted in inflammation and swelling and edema [excess fluid], probably an awful lot of very thick sputum [mucous], which has made probably clearing his airway difficult for him, which at his age and Parkinson's, is difficult already," explained Dr. Carter.
The Vatican's top health official, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, confirms that the Parkinson's is aggravating the situation. He told the Associated Press that the pontiff's inability to stand up straight has compressed his lungs and diaphragm, the muscle within the rib cage that expands and contracts the chest in breathing.
Dr. Carter in New York is not involved in the pope's care, but he speculates that the infection might have caused the Roman Catholic leader to struggle for air and even choke. The Vatican notes that he has been given breathing help, which experts say could have involved suctioning mucous from his throat and inserting oxygen tubes in his nose or connecting him to a respirator.
Dr. Carter says the pope's doctors are probably administering an antibiotic and taking every other possible measure to prevent his condition from progressing into pneumonia.
"Hopefully with great care, he will be able to turn the corner," he added.