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Collapsed lung

Definition

A collapsed lung, or pneumothorax, is the collection of air in the space around the lungs. This buildup of air puts pressure on the lung, so it cannot expand as much as it normally does when you take a breath.

Alternative Names

Air around the lung; Air outside the lung; Pneumothorax; Spontaneous pneumothorax

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

A collapsed lung occurs when air escapes from the lung and fills up the space outside of the lung, inside the chest. It may be caused by a gunshot or knife wound to the chest, rib fracture, or certain medical procedures.

In some cases, a collapsed lung occurs without any cause. This is called a spontaneous pneumothorax. A small area in the lung that is filled with air, called a bleb, can rupture, sending air into the space around the lung.

Tall, thin people are more likely to have a collapsed lung.

Lung diseases such as COPD, asthma, cystic fibrosis, tuberculosis, and whooping cough also increase your risk for a collapsed lung.

Symptoms

Common symptoms of a collapsed lung include:

A larger pneumothorax will cause more severe symptoms, including:

Other symptoms that can occur with a collapsed lung include:

Signs and tests

There are decreased or no breath sounds on the affected side when heard through a stethoscope.

Tests include:

Treatment

A small pneumothorax may go away on its own. You may only need oxygen and rest. The health care provider may use a needle to pull the extra air out from around the lung so it can expand more fully. You may be allowed to go home if you live near the hospital.

If you have a large pneumothorax, a chest tube will be placed between the ribs into the space around the lungs to help drain the air and allows the lung to re-expand.

The chest tube can be left in place for several days. You may need to stay in the hospital. However, you may be able to go home if a small chest tube is used.

Some patients with a collapsed lung need extra oxygen.

Lung surgery may be needed to treat your pneumothorax or to prevent future episodes. The area where the leak occurred may be repaired. Sometimes, a special chemical is placed into the area of the collapsed lung. This chemical causes a scar to form.

Expectations (prognosis)

If you have a collapsed lung, you are more likely to have another one in the future if you:

  • Are tall and thin
  • Continue to smoke
  • Have had two collapsed lungs in the past

How well a person does after having a collapsed lung depends on what caused it.

Complications

  • Another collapsed lung in the future
  • Shock

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of a collapsed lung, especially if you have had one before.

Prevention

There is no known way to prevent a collapsed lung, but you can decrease your risk by not smoking.

References

Light RW, Lee GY. Pneumothorax, chylothorax, hemothorax, and fibrothorax. In: Mason RJ, Murray JF, Broaddus VC, Nadel JA, eds. Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2005:chap 69.


Review Date: 9/15/2011
Reviewed By: Andrew Schriber, MD, FCCP, Specialist in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine, Virtua Memorial Hospital, Mount Holly, New Jersey. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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