Types of Atelectasis

by Sam Malone

Atelectasis is the complete or partial collapse of your lung, or a lobe of your lung. This is one of the most common respiratory problems in people, occurring when the alveoli or the tiny air sacs within the lungs gets deflated. There are different types of atelectasis, which include -

  • Adhesive Atelectasis: Normally, surfactant decreases the surface tension and causes your alveoli to remain open. However, some conditions could lead to a loss of surfactant, because of which the alveoli collapses and becomes atelactatic.
  • Relaxation Atelectasis: This occurs when the pressure on the pleural space holds the lung close to your chest wall. When the pressure is lost, the lung may recoil because of its elastic properties. It is the loss of the negative pressure in the pleura that allows the lung to relax. This type of atelectasis is also known as passive atelectasis.
  • Resorptive Atelectasis: This occurs when the airways are obstructed and there is no ventilation of air to your lungs. In the early stages of this condition, the flow of blood continues through the body and the nitrogen and oxygen gets gradually absorbed.
  • Round Atelectasis: This occurs when the lung gets affected by a pleural disease, which leaves it devoid of air.

Atelectasis can be acute or chronic and is broadly classified into two types, obstructive atelectasis and non-obstructive atelectasis.


Atelectasis usually occurs when there is a blockage in the respiratory passages, or when there is pressure from outside the lung. Some of the factors that could lead to atelectasis include -

  • Abnormal growths or tumors that narrow the airways
  • Accumulation of mucus in the airways, usually after a surgery
  • Bleeding in the lungs or blood clots that cannot be coughed out
  • Chronic infections & diseases like tuberculosis, which scar and constrict the airways
  • Different types of pneumonia
  • Extended bed rest, with minimal physical activity
  • Injuries or trauma to the chest area
  • Leakage of air in the gap between the chest wall and the lungs
  • Pleural effusion, i.e., the buildup of fluid between the pleura tissues
  • Presence of a foreign body in the airway passage
  • Scars in the lung tissue
  • Use of anesthesia during a surgery

Factors like obesity can increase the risks of atelectasis to a great extent.


Most cases of atelectasis are detected when patients undergo a chest x-ray for another medical condition. This is because there are often no obvious signs and symptoms for this problem. However, at times, you may experience symptoms like -

  • Dyspnea or breathing difficulty
  • Shallow or rapid breathing
  • Low grade fever
  • Coughing
  • Pain in the chest
  • Elevated heartbeat rate

It is best to visit a doctor as soon as you experience any breathing difficulties or chest pain.

Your doctor may conduct a detailed physical exam before asking you to undergo certain tests such as -

  • A chest x-ray
  • A CT scan of the chest
  • A bronchoscopy
  • An ultrasound
  • An oximetry


Atelectasis treatment is aimed at re-expanding the collapsed lung tissue and may vary, depending upon its underlying cause. Some of the possible treatment options recommended for this condition include -

  • Chest physiotherapy: Deep breathing, coughing, percussion and postural drainage.
  • Medication: Inhaled bronchodilators to open the bronchial tubes, acetylcysteine to thin the mucus and dornase alfa (for people with cystic fibrosis).
  • Surgical procedures: Removal of the airway obstruction through a bronchoscopy.

Very often, addressing the underlying cause of atelectasis helps to cure the condition.

Atelectasis is not necessary serious or life-threatening, but is should be checked and treated by a doctor, without any delay.


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