What is Atelectasis?

Atelectasis is a term referring to a partially or completely collapsed lung. It is caused by some type of pressure on the lungs or blockage in the air passageways. Atelectasis sometimes occurs following surgery and is sometimes a reaction to anesthesia or a result of lung disease. It can also be caused by lengthy bed rest, excessive mucus in airways, fluid buildup in the lungs, or the presence of a tumor.

What are the Symptoms of Atelectasis?

Difficult breathing is the most common symptom of atelectasis. Symptoms can also overlap with other contributing conditions, such as lung disease, some forms of cancer, or existing respiratory ailments.

Symptoms include

Atelectasis Causes

The causes of atelectasis can vary widely. Causes include complications due to medical intervention or treatment such as surgery, or from longstanding health issues or any event in which external pressure results in reduced expansion of the lungs. Regarding atelectasis caused by medical treatment, anesthesia and/or the insertion of a breathing tube are risk factors for developing atelectasis, as they can interrupt the normal rhythm and depth of airflow into and out of the lungs.

Atelectasis can also be caused by a number of health issues and occurrences as well. Medical conditions such as pleural effusion, or fluid buildup around the lungs and lung cancer can cause external pressure and restrict expansion of the lungs that leads to atelectasis. Other likely but less common influencing factors can be a bone deformity or tight body cast which can also restrict airflow and increase the risk of developing atelectasis. Additionally, illnesses or conditions such as pneumonia, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or cystic fibrosis can restrict complete expansion of the lungs on inspiration, which increases risk. Other factors include aspirating a foreign object, such as food, and mucous blockages in the airway.

How is Atelectasis Treated?

Treatment involves re-inflating the affected lung. If fluid has accumulated, it will be removed before the lung is re-inflated. When the blockage is discovered early and removed, the collapsed or partially collapsed lung usually re-inflates without further complications. If only a small area of a lung is affected, treatment is usually successful and the condition isn’t considered life-threatening.

Treatment includes

  • Removal of mucus plugs
  • Re-inflation of lung by surgery
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Change in position to allow fluid to drain naturally
  • Removal or treatment of a tumor (if that is the cause of the lung collapse)
  • Adjustment of positions to allow lungs to naturally re-inflate
  • Inhaled medications to restore normal airway functioning

Children may experience atelectasis if they accidentally swallow a foreign object. Patients need to be monitored carefully since pneumonia can quickly develop in the affected part of the lung. Preventative measures can include keeping small objects away from children, limiting bed rest following surgery, and encouraging steady, deep breathing when recovering from the effects of anesthesia.

Atelectasis Prevention

Given its varied causes, there are numerous steps that can be taken to prevent atelectasis. Discontinuing smoking is very important in decreasing the risk of atelectasis for many reasons. Not only does it decrease the risk of developing lung cancer, which is a risk factor for atelectasis, but it also decreases the chance of pulmonary issues during surgery. Additionally, changing position and performing deep breathing regularly after surgery, or while being confined to bed rest for an extended period of time, can prevent issues that can lead to the development of atelectasis. In the cases of foreign object aspiration or mucous buildup, inducing a cough to clear the airway can helps prevent airway blockages. Additionally, treating respiratory infections early is key in helping prevent complications that lead to the development of atelectasis.

Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2016
Last Updated:
June 04, 2018