Atelectasis is a condition where a portion of the lung has collapsed or is not able to completely expand. Normally, oxygen enters the body through the lungs. Carbon dioxide is released through the lungs. 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 body.
The Lungs (Cut-away View)
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Causes include: Fluid in or around the lungsInfectionBlockage of airways in the lungs due to tumors, mucus, or a foreign object
Compression, resulting from
, an enlarged heart, or a tumor
Restricted chest movement, due to bone or muscle problems, or recent abdominal surgery
Scarring, as a result of
, frequent infections, or disease
(leakage of air into the space surrounding the lungs)
Lung immaturity in premature babies
A collapsed lung 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 breathingShortness of breathTaking shallow breathsCoughingDecreased chest movement during breathingMild feverRapid heart rateChest painBlueness of the lips or nails
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.
Your doctor may need images of your lungs. This can be done with a
Your doctor may need to examine your lungs and air passages. This can be done with a
Your doctor may also need to do additional tests to check your heart, blood vessels, and airways.
Treatment focuses on treating the underlying cause and maintaining enough air supply. The collapsed lung usually expands after the underlying cause has been corrected. Atelectasis often resolves on its own without treatment.
The therapist uses different techniques to help clear mucus from the lung. You will be positioned so that gravity helps secretions flow out of the body. When resting in bed, lie on the unaffected side to promote drainage from the lung area that has collapsed.
This may include any or all of the following: Breathing masks or treatments to help keep your airways openIncentive spirometry to help you learn to take deeper breathsSuction to help remove secretionsA breathing machine, called a ventilator, if you are unable to breathe adequately on your own
Medications may include: Drugs to open the airwaysDrugs to treat the disease that caused the collapseAntibiotics to treat an infectionCardiac drugs to control heart diseaseInhalers and other drugs to manage asthma or emphysemaOxygen, if you are having trouble breathing
Bronchoscopy may be used to remove a foreign body or mucus that is blocking the airway.
Measures to prevent atelectasis are related to the various causes. They include: If you smoke, stop.If you are obese, lose weight.If you have a chronic lung or heart condition, follow your doctor's advice to manage the disease and limit complications.After surgery, follow instructions for deep breathing, coughing, and turning. Ask for pain medication if discomfort is limiting movement or coughing.
Behrman RE, et al.
Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics
. 18th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2007.
Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds.
Cecil Textbook of Internal Medicine
. 23rd ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2008.
Mason, RJ et al.
Murray & Nadel’s Textbook of Respiratory Medicine
. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2007.
Last reviewed November 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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