Atelectasis

Atelectasis is a collapse of the air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. It may occur in a portion of the lung, or in the entire lung. Normally, oxygen enters the body through the lungs and is exchanged with carbon dioxide in the alveoli. The lungs expand and contract to create the exchange of these gases. Atelectasis is not a disease, but a condition or sign that results from disease or abnormalities in the lungs.

  • Causes

    Atelectasis is caused by a:

    • Blockage of the airway
    • Reduced amount of surfactant, a liquid that keeps the lungs expanded

    Blockage may be caused by:

    • Infection
    • Tumors, mucus, or a foreign object in the lungs

    • Compression, resulting from
      emphysema
      , an enlarged heart, or a tumor

    • Scarring that blocks the airway as a result of
      radiation therapy
      , frequent infections, or disease
    • Pneumothorax
      (leakage of air into the space surrounding the lungs)

    Reduced amounts of surfactant may be caused by:

    • Lung immaturity in premature babies
    • Fluid accumulation
    • Failure to take deep breaths
    • Not coughing, which keeps the airway clear

  • Definition

    Atelectasis is a collapse of the air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. It may occur in a portion of the lung, or in the entire lung. Normally, oxygen enters the body through the lungs and is exchanged with carbon dioxide in the alveoli. The lungs expand and contract to create the exchange of these gases.

    Atelectasis is not a disease, but a condition or sign that results from disease or abnormalities in the lungs.

    The Lungs (Cut-away View)
    Nucleus factsheet image
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

  • Diagnosis

    The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. This may include listening to your lungs for changes in the normal sounds.

    Tests may include:

    • X-ray
      or
      CT scan
    • Bronchoscopy

    Other tests may be needed to confirm or rule out the cause of the atelectasis.

  • Prevention

    To help reduce your chance of atelectasis, take these steps.


    • If you need to, talk to your doctor about the best ways to
      quit smoking
      and
      lose weight
      .
    • If you have a chronic lung or heart condition, follow the treatment plan outlined by your doctor.
    • After surgery, follow instructions for deep breathing, coughing, and turning. Ask for pain medication if discomfort is limiting movement or coughing.

  • Risk Factors

    Factors that may increase your chance for atelectasis include:

    • Premature birth if lungs are not fully developed
    • Anesthesia
    • Restricted chest movement, due to bone or muscle problems, or recent abdominal surgery
    • Injuries
    • Prolonged bed rest with few changes in position
    • Mechanical ventilation

    • Lung diseases, such as
      asthma
      or
      lung cancer
    • Weakened respiratory muscles
    • Smoking
    • Heart failure
    • Obesity

    • Conditions that limit physical activity, such as
      a
      stroke
      , spinal cord injury, heart problems,
      trauma
      , or severe illness

  • Symptoms

    Atelectasis may or may not cause symptoms. Small areas of collapse are less likely than larger areas to cause symptoms. Major atelectasis decreases the amount of oxygen available throughout the body.

    Symptoms that may occur if a large area has collapsed include:

    • Rapid breathing
    • Shortness of breath
    • Taking shallow breaths
    • Coughing
    • Decreased chest movement during breathing
    • Mild fever
    • Rapid heart rate
    • Chest pain
    • Blueness of the lips or nails

  • Treatment

    Treatment focuses on treating the underlying cause and maintaining enough air supply. The collapsed lung usually expands after the underlying cause has been corrected. Mild atelectasis often goes away on its own without treatment.

    Treatments include: