Pneumothorax Atelectasis

by Garreth Myers

Atelectasis refers to the partial or complete collapse of a lung. Atelectasis is usually caused by an obstruction of the airways, excess pressure on the lungs or an increase of fluid in the lungs. While pneumothorax also refers to a collapsed lung, it differs from atelectasis as it is caused by a puncture in the lining of the lungs. This puncture of the pleural membrane that protects the lungs leads to rush of air into the chest cavity and a subsequent collapse of the lung. Since a collapse of the lung reduces the amount of oxygen supplied to the different parts of the body, both pneumothorax and atelectasis are potentially life-threatening diseases if left untreated.

Causes of Pneumothorax

Pneumothorax can develop as a result of:
  • Some sort of injury or trauma such as a fracture of the ribs or getting shot or stabbed in the chest
  • Other lung diseases such as COPD, asthma, chronic bronchitis, and cystic fibrosis could result in a spontaneous rupture of the lungs
  • Smoking
  • A past history of respiratory conditions and collapsed lungs
  • Being underweight and extra tall makes a person more susceptible to pneumothorax

Causes of Atelectasis

Atelectasis is a common side effect of general anesthesia or surgery. People who have been confined to bed rest may also develop this condition. Other causes of atelectasis include:
  • Mucus plugs
  • Blockage caused by inhaled foreign objects
  • Shallow breathing
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Other lung diseases
  • Pleural effusion
  • Tumors
  • Premature birth
  • Lung cancer
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Obesity
  • Pneumothorax can also be a cause of atelectasis

Symptoms of Pneumothorax and Atelectasis

Since both conditions involve a collapsed lung, symptoms are similar. Symptoms can range from mild and barely noticeable to severe or chronic. These include:
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Blue lips or fingers due to lack of oxygen
  • Fatigue
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat

Diagnosis and Treatment of Pneumothorax / Atelectasis

In order to diagnose the condition, a physical examination along with a chest X-ray is necessary. Additionally, chest CT scans or a bronchoscopy may be performed as well.

Treatment of atelectasis and pneumothorax depends on the severity of the symptoms and the cause of the condition. If the patient cannot breathe or is suffering from a severe lack of oxygen, intubation and hospitalization may be required. Other treatment methods include:
  • Postural drainage in cases of excess fluid collected in the lungs
  • Chest puncture to release air from the chest cavity as a result of pneumothorax
  • Surgery to repair any damage to the chest or lungs
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Deep breathing exercises including incentive spirometry
  • Bronchoscopy to remove any blockage or obstruction
  • Physical therapy such as clapping or coughing to release mucus plugs in the lungs
Recovery from pneumothorax or atelectasis may take time. In cases where the symptoms are mild, treatment may not even be needed as the condition tends to resolve itself and breathing is not compromised. Care should be taken to prevent any infection during the recovery phase, as people with a collapsed lung are more susceptible to pneumonia. At times, antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent this from happening. The danger of conditions such as atelectasis and pneumothorax increases when there is a long lag in the diagnosis and treatment. Respiratory conditions need prompt medical attention, as the proper functioning of the lungs is imperative for oxygen supply to various parts of the body.


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