Atelectasis and Pneumonia

by Thomas Zudrell

Atelectasis refers to the partial or complete collapse of the lung. It occurs when the bronchioles or the air passages get blocked or there is outside pressure on the lung. Atelectasis occurs mostly after any type of major surgery, or in patients who have spent a large amount of time in hospital. Apart from being a complication associated with surgery, atelectasis may also develop as a result of other respiratory complications such as lung tumors, severe asthma, cystic fibrosis and any type of chest injury. Atelectasis is a serious medical condition that affects the amount of oxygen supplied to the body. It should thus be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

Symptoms of atelectasis vary depending on which part of the lung has collapsed and caused the damage. While many people report no obvious signs of the condition, common symptoms include breathing difficulties, rapid or shallow breathing, a chronic cough and a low-grade fever. If you are in hospital, signs of atelectasis are likely to occur soon after surgery. General anesthesia causes some degree of atelectasis as it changes the way the air flows into the lungs and creates an imbalance of pressure within the alveoli or tiny air sacs in the lungs. Atelectasis is a common complication after heart bypass surgery.

The risk of developing atelectasis increases in cases of:

  • Premature birth
  • Aged people with impaired swallowing abilities
  • Lung disease
  • Illnesses that demand confinement to bed
  • Post abdominal and chest surgery
  • Rib fracture that causes impaired breathing
  • Spinal cord injury or muscular dystrophy that causes breathing problems
  • Obesity that hampers the respiration process
  • Young children between the ages of one and three

Treatment of atelectasis depends on the cause and severity of the condition. A small collapse is left without treatment and tends to heal on its own. In cases of tumors, radiation or chemotherapy may be required. Other ways to treat atelectasis include:

  • Chest physiotherapy involving coughing, thumping of the chest, deep breathing exercises and postural drainage.
  • Supplemental oxygen to improve breathing difficulties
  • Medications such as bronchodilators
  • Surgical procedures like bronchoscopy and mucus suction

Though it is also considered a respiratory disorder, pneumonia differs from atelectasis in that it is caused by a bacterial, viral or fungal infection. Additionally, with atelectasis there is loss of lung volume, which is not seen with pneumonia. The infection can affect either one or both the lungs and can cause the air sacs to swell up and fill with pus or fluid.  People above the age of 65 and young children below the age of 2 are the most susceptible to pneumonia.

The symptoms of pneumonia range from breathing difficulties, chronic cough with phlegm, chest pain, chills, and fever. Pneumonia may also cause other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Severity of the symptoms will depend on the type of infection and the age of the patient. If the patient also suffers from other illnesses such as heart failure, COPD, HIV/ AIDS, or cancer, pneumonia symptoms tend to be more severe and the treatment more prolonged. Pneumonia may result in complications such as atelectasis if the condition is not treated in time.

Treatment for pneumonia usually includes a course of antibiotics. In most cases, medications should provide some relief from the symptoms in a few days time. Pneumonia caused by a virus will not respond to antibiotics. In such cases, anti-viral treatment is recommended and symptoms should improve in one to three weeks. Most patients complain of fatigue long after the symptoms of pneumonia have cleared up. In cases where the symptoms do not reduce or if they get exacerbated over time, hospitalization may be required. Supplemental oxygen or intravenous antibiotics may be administered in such cases.


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