Atelectasis (at-uh-LEK-tuh-sis) — a complete or partial collapse of a lung or lobe of a lung — develops when the tiny air sacs (alveoli) within the lung become deflated. It is one of the most common breathing (respiratory) complications after surgery. Atelectasis is also a possible complication of other respiratory problems, including cystic fibrosis, inhaled foreign objects, lung tumors, fluid in the lung, severe asthma and chest injuries.
The amount of lung tissue involved in atelectasis is variable, depending on the cause. Signs and symptoms of atelectasis also vary. Atelectasis can be serious because it reduces the amount of oxygen available to your body. Treatment depends on the cause and severity of the collapse.
There may be no obvious signs or symptoms of atelectasis. 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) or of pressure from outside the lung (nonobstructive).
Almost everyone who undergoes surgery has some atelectasis from anesthesia. Anesthesia changes the dynamics of airflow within the lungs, the absorption of gases and pressures, all of which combine to cause some degree of collapse of the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs. It is particularly prominent after heart bypass surgery.
A blockage in your air passages (bronchial tubes) can cause obstructive atelectasis. Possible causes of blockage include:
Possible causes of nonobstructive atelectasis include:
Factors that increase the 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 lung specialist (pulmonologist).
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
What you can do
Questions to ask your doctor
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.
Supplemental oxygen can help relieve shortness of breath.
Surgical or other procedures
Use of continuous positive pressure may be helpful in some people with low oxygen levels (hypoxemia) after surgery.
To decrease atelectasis risk:
Last Updated: 2012-07-14
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