Atelectasis

What is an Atelectasis

Atelectasis is a collapse of air sacs in the lungs (alveoli). The condition causes all or part of a lung to collapse. Atelectasis is a common problem after surgery. Its severity depends on the size of lung tissue area involved and the underlying cause. When severe, it can lead to shortness of breath and heart problems.

Atelectasis can develop suddenly or over a long period of time. Atelectasis that develops over a long period of time (chronic atelectasis) often leads to infection, scarring, and other problems.

What are the causes?

This condition may be caused by:

  • Shallow breathing.
  • Medicines that make breathing more shallow.
  • A blockage in an airway. Blockages can result from:
    • A buildup of mucus.
    • A tumor.
    • An inhaled object (foreign body).
    • Enlarged lymph nodes.
    • Fluid in the lungs (pleural effusion).
    • A blood clot in the lungs.
  • Outside pressure on the lung. Pressure can be due to:
    • A tumor.
    • Fluid in the lungs (pleural effusion).
    • Air leaking between the lung and rib cage (pneumothorax).
    • Enlarged lymph nodes.
  • Improper expansion of the lungs. This may occur in newborns because of:
    • Prematurity.
    • Low oxygen levels.
    • Secretions at birth that block the airway.
    • Amniotic fluid that goes into the lungs (aspiration).

What increases the risk?

This condition is more likely to develop in people who:

  • Have an injury or health problem that makes taking deep breaths difficult or painful.
  • Have certain infections or diseases, such as pneumonia or cystic fibrosis.
  • Have had surgery on the chest or abdomen.
  • Have broken ribs.
  • Have a tight bandage around their chest.
  • Have a collapsed lung due to pneumothorax.
  • Take medicines that decrease the rate of their breathing or how deeply they breathe, like sedatives.
  • Lie flat for long periods of time.

What are the signs or symptoms?

Often, there are no symptoms for this condition. When symptoms do appear, they may include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Bluish color to the nails, lips, or mouth (cyanosis).
  • A cough.

How is this diagnosed?

This condition may be diagnosed based on:

  • Symptoms.
  • A physical exam.
  • A chest X-ray.

Sometimes specialized imaging tests are needed to diagnose the condition.

How is this treated?

Treatment for this condition depends on what caused the condition. Treatment may involve:

  • Coughing. Coughing helps loosen mucus in the airway.
  • Chest physiotherapy. This is a treatment to help loosen and clear mucus from the airways. It is done by clapping the chest.
  • Postural drainage techniques. This treatment involves positioning your body so your head is lower than your chest. It helps mucus drain from your airways.
  • An incentive spirometer. This is a device that is used to help with taking deeper breaths.
  • Positive pressure breathing. This is a form of breathing assistance in which air is forced into the lungs when you breathe in (inhale). You may have this treatment if your condition is severe.
  • Treatment of the underlying condition.

Follow these instructions at home:

  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider.
  • Practice taking relaxed and deep breaths when you are sitting. A good time to practice is when you are watching TV. Take a few deep breaths during each commercial break.
  • Make sure to lie on your unaffected side when you are lying down. For example, if you have atelectasis in your left lung, lie on your right side. This will help mucus drain from your airway.
  • Cough several times a day as told by your health care provider.
  • Perform chest physiotherapy or postural drainage techniques as told by your health care provider. If necessary, have someone help you.
  • If you were given a device to help with breathing, use it as told by your health care provider.
  • Stay as active as possible.

Get help right away if:

  • Your breathing problems get worse.
  • You have severe chest pain.
  • You develop severe coughing.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You have a fever.
  • You have persistent symptoms for more than 2–3 days.
  • Your symptoms suddenly get worse.

Atelectasis, Pediatric

Atelectasis is a collapse of air sacs in the lungs (alveoli). The condition causes all or part of a lung to collapse. Atelectasis is a common problem after surgery. Its severity depends on the size of lung tissue area involved and the underlying cause. When severe, it can lead to shortness of breath and heart problems.

Atelectasis can develop suddenly or over a long period of time. Atelectasis that develops over a long period of time (chronic atelectasis) often leads to infection, scarring, and other problems.

What are the causes?

This condition may be caused by:

  • Shallow breathing.
  • Medicines that make breathing more shallow.
  • A blockage in an airway. Blockages can result from:
    • A buildup of mucus.
    • A tumor.
    • An inhaled object (foreign body).
    • Enlarged lymph nodes.
    • Fluid in the lungs (pleural effusion).
    • A blood clot in the lungs.
  • Outside pressure on the lung. Pressure can be due to:
    • A tumor.
    • Fluid in the lungs (pleural effusion).
    • Air leaking between the lung and rib cage (pneumothorax).
    • Enlarged lymph nodes.
  • Improper expansion of the lungs. This may occur in newborns because of:
    • Prematurity.
    • Low oxygen levels.
    • Secretions at birth that block the airway.
    • Amniotic fluid that goes into the lungs (aspiration).

What increases the risk?

This condition is more likely to develop in children who:

  • Have an injury or health problem that makes taking deep breaths difficult or painful.
  • Have had surgery on chest or abdomen.
  • Have certain infections or diseases, such as pneumonia or cystic fibrosis.
  • Have a tight bandage around their chest.
  • Have a collapsed lung due to air getting between the lungs and the rib cage (pneumothorax).
  • Take medicines that decrease the rate of their breathing or how deeply they breathe, like sedatives.
  • Lie flat for a prolonged period of time.
  • Have broken ribs.

What are the signs or symptoms?

Often, there are no symptoms for this condition. When symptoms do appear, they may include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Bluish color to the nails, lips, or mouth (cyanosis).
  • A cough.

How is this diagnosed?

This condition may be diagnosed based on:

  • Symptoms.
  • A physical exam.
  • A chest X-ray.

Sometimes specialized imaging tests are needed to diagnose the condition.

How is this treated?

Treatment for this condition depends on what caused the condition. Treatment may involve:

  • Chest physiotherapy. This is a treatment to help loosen and clear mucus from the airways. It is done by clapping the chest.
  • Positive pressure breathing. This is a form of breathing assistance in which air is forced into the lungs when the child breathes in (inhales). Your child may have this treatment if her or his condition is severe.
  • An incentive spirometer. An incentive spirometer is a device that is used to help with breathing.
  • Deep breathing exercises. These may be recommended if your child’s treatment involves using an incentive spirometer.
  • Treatment of the underlying condition.

Follow these instructions at home:

  • Give over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your child’s health care provider.

If your child is producing a lot of mucus, use a bulb syringe to clear your child’s nose.

  • If oxygen is prescribed, use it as directed by your child’s health care provider.
  • Help your child use an incentive spirometer or do coughing exercises to help expand the lung if directed by your child’s health care provider.
  • If your child has coughing spasms, try the following:
    • Have your child drink warm fluids such as warm apple juice.
    • Placing a humidifier in your child’s bedroom.

Get help right away if:

  • Your child’s breathing problems get worse.
  • Your child has a fever.
  • Your child has persistent symptoms for more than 72 hours.
  • Your child’s symptoms suddenly get worse.
  • Your child has severe chest pain.
  • Your child develops severe coughing.
  • Your child coughs up blood.
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