Atelectasis (at-uh-LEK-tuh-sis) — a complete or partial collapse of a lung — is a possible complication of many respiratory problems. Mucus in the airways after surgery, cystic fibrosis, inhaled foreign objects, severe asthma and chest injuries are among the common causes of atelectasis.
Unlike pneumothorax, which is air between the chest wall and lung, atelectasis develops when the tiny air sacs (alveoli) within the lung become deflated.
The amount of lung tissue involved in atelectasis is variable, depending on the cause. Signs and symptoms of atelectasis also vary with the underlying cause and the extent of lung involvement. Atelectasis can be serious because it impairs the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your lungs. Treatment depends on the cause and severity of the collapse.
Depending on the severity of the atelectasis, there may be no obvious signs or symptoms. If you do experience signs and symptoms, they may include:
When to see a doctor
Atelectasis may be the result of a blocked airway (obstructive atelectasis) or of pressure outside your lung (nonobstructive atelectasis). To understand how it occurs, think of soap bubbles. Just as a soap bubble's liquid surface keeps the bubble intact, a surface agent (surfactant) coats each of the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs so they don't collapse. Anything that diminishes surfactant, such as pressure on the lungs, can cause atelectasis.
A blockage in your air passages (bronchial tubes) can cause obstructive atelectasis. Possible causes of blockage include:
Pressure on the outside of your lungs can cause nonobstructive atelectasis. Possible causes include:
Factors that increase your risk of atelectasis include:
The following complications may result from atelectasis:
Preparing for your appointment
Unless you require emergency care, you're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to a pulmonologist.
It's a good idea to prepare for your appointment. Here's some information to help you.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions for your doctor will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important. For atelectasis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment if you don't understand something or need more information.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
A chest X-ray usually can diagnose atelectasis. Symptoms of a respiratory infection, especially pneumonia, on a child's chest X-ray may indicate a foreign body, the most common cause of obstructive atelectasis in children.
To determine the underlying cause, your doctor may order other tests, including:
Treatments and drugs
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.
Surgical or other procedures
To decrease atelectasis risk:
Last Updated: 2010-03-19
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