What is atelectasis?
Atelectasis is a complete or partial collapse of a lung or lobe of a lung. It develops when the tiny air sacs (alveoli) within the lung become deflated.
Atelectasis is also a possible complication of other respiratory problems, including cystic fibrosis, inhaled foreign objects, lung tumors, fluid in the lung, respiratory weakness and chest injuries.
How common is atelectasis?
Atelectasis can affect patients at any age. It’s a common breathing complication after surgery.
It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of atelectasis?
There may be no obvious signs or symptoms of atelectasis. If you do have signs and symptoms, they may include:
- Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
- Rapid, shallow breathing
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
Atelectasis is likely to occur when you’re already in a hospital. However, seek medical attention right away if you have trouble breathing. Other conditions besides atelectasis can cause breathing difficulties and require an accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment. If your breathing becomes increasingly difficult, seek emergency care.
What causes atelectasis?
Atelectasis may be the result of a blocked airway or of pressure from outside the lung (nonobstructive).
Almost everyone who has surgery has some atelectasis from anesthesia. Anesthesia changes your regular pattern of breathing and the absorption of gases and pressures, which may combine to cause some degree of collapse of the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs. Atelectasis is particularly prominent after heart bypass surgery.
Obstructive atelectasis may be caused by:
- Mucus plug. Accumulation of mucus in your airways, often occurring during and after surgery because you can’t cough, is a common cause of atelectasis. Drugs given during surgery make the lungs inflate less fully than usual, so normal secretions collect in the airways. Suctioning the lungs during surgery helps clear away these secretions, but they may continue to build up afterward. Mucus plugs also are common in children, people with cystic fibrosis and during severe asthma attacks.
- Foreign body. Atelectasis is common in children who have inhaled an object, such as a peanut or small toy part, into their lungs.
- Narrowing of major airways from disease. Chronic infections, including fungal infections, tuberculosis and other diseases, can scar and constrict major airways.
- Tumor in a major airway. An abnormal growth can narrow the airway.
- Blood clot. This occurs only if there’s significant bleeding into the lungs that can’t be coughed out.
Possible causes of nonobstructive atelectasis include:
- Injury. Chest trauma — from a fall or car accident, for example — can cause you to avoid taking deep breaths (due to the pain), which can result in compression of your lungs.
- Pleural effusion. This is a buildup of fluid between the tissues (pleura) that line the lungs and the inside of the chest wall.
- Pneumonia. Different types of pneumonia, an infection of your lungs, may temporarily cause atelectasis.
- Pneumothorax. Air leaks into the space between your lungs and chest wall, indirectly causing some or all of a lung to collapse.
- Scarring of lung tissue. Scarring could be caused by injury, lung disease or surgery. In these rare cases, the atelectasis is minor compared with the damage to the lung tissue from the scarring.
- Tumor. A large tumor can press against and deflate the lung, as opposed to blocking the air passages.
What increases my risk for atelectasis?
There are many risk factors for atelectasis, such as:
- Age – being younger than 3 or older than 60 years of age.
- Any condition that interferes with spontaneous coughing, yawning and sighing.
- Confinement to bed with infrequent changes of position.
- Impaired swallowing function, particularly in older adults – aspirating secretions into the lungs is a major source of infections.
- Lung disease, such as asthma in children, COPD, bronchiectasis or cystic fibrosis.
- Premature birth.
- Recent abdominal or chest surgery.
- Recent general anesthesia.
- Respiratory muscle weakness, due to muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury or another neuromuscular condition.
- Any cause of shallow breathing – including medications and their side effects, or mechanical limitations, such as abdominal pain or rib fracture, for example.
Diagnosis & Treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is atelectasis diagnosed?
To diagnose atelectasis and determine the underlying cause, your doctor may order tests, including:
- Chest X-ray. A chest X-ray usually can diagnose atelectasis. Occasionally, a foreign body, a common cause of obstructive atelectasis in children and adults, may be seen on this type of imaging.
- CT scan. CT is more sensitive than plain X-ray in detecting atelectasis because it can measure lung volumes in all or part of a lung. A CT scan can also help determine whether a tumor may have caused your lung to collapse – something that may not show up on a regular X-ray.
- Oximetry. This simple test uses a small device placed on one of your fingers to measure the oxygen saturation in your blood.
- Bronchoscopy. A flexible, lighted tube threaded down your throat enables your doctor to see and possibly remove, at least partially, obstructions in your airway, such as a mucus plug, tumor or foreign body.
How is atelectasis treated?
Treatment of atelectasis depends on the cause. Atelectasis of a small area of your lung may subside without treatment. If there’s an underlying condition, such as a tumor, treatment may involve removal or shrinkage of the tumor with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.
Techniques that help people breathe deeply after surgery to re-expand collapsed lung tissue are very important. These techniques are best learned before surgery. They include:
- Clapping (percussion) on your chest over the collapsed area to loosen mucus. You can also use mechanical mucus-clearance devices, such as an air-pulse vibrator vest or a hand-held instrument.
- Performing deep-breathing exercises (incentive spirometry) and using a device to assist with deep coughing may be helpful.
- Positioning your body so that your head is lower than your chest (postural drainage). This allows mucus to drain better from the bottom of your lungs.
- Supplemental oxygen can help relieve shortness of breath.
Surgical or other procedures
Your doctor may suggest removal of airway obstructions, which may be done by suctioning mucus or by bronchoscopy. Bronchoscopy uses a flexible tube threaded down your throat to clear your airways. Use of continuous positive pressure may be helpful in some people who are too weak to cough and have low oxygen levels (hypoxemia) after surgery.
Lifestyle changes & Home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage atelectasis?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with atelectasis:
- Atelectasis in children is often caused by a blockage in the airway. To decrease atelectasis risk, keep small objects out of reach of children.
- In adults, atelectasis most commonly occurs after surgery. If you’re scheduled for surgery, talk with your doctor about how to reduce your risk of atelectasis.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Atelectasis. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000065.htm. Accessed 17 Mar 2017.
Atelectasis. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/atelectasis/basics/definition/con-20034847. Accessed 17 Mar 2017.
Review Date: March 19, 2017 | Last Modified: September 12, 2019