Atelectasis means a collapse of the whole lung or an area of the lung. It's one of the most common breathing complications after surgery.
Atelectasis (at-uh-LEK-tuh-sis) is the collapse of a lung or part of a lung, also known as a lobe. It happens when tiny air sacs within the lung, called alveoli, lose air.
Atelectasis is one of the most common breathing complications after surgery. It's also a possible complication of other respiratory problems, including cystic fibrosis, lung tumors, chest injuries, fluid in the lung and respiratory weakness. You may develop atelectasis if you breathe in a foreign object.
This condition can make breathing hard, particularly if you already have lung disease. Treatment depends on what's causing the collapse and how severe it is.
The definition of atelectasis is broader than pneumothorax (noo-moe-THOR-aks). Pneumothorax is when air leaks into the space between your lungs and chest wall, causing part or all of a lung to collapse. Pneumothorax is one of several causes of atelectasis.
There may be no clear signs of atelectasis. If you have any signs, they may include:
Always get medical attention right away if you have a hard time breathing. Other conditions besides atelectasis can make it hard to breathe, so it's important to get the right diagnosis and treatment. If your breathing suddenly becomes difficult, get emergency medical help.
A blocked airway can cause atelectasis. This is called obstructive atelectasis. Pressure from outside the lung also can cause atelectasis. This is called nonobstructive atelectasis.
General anesthesia — which brings on a sleeplike state with the use of medicines before a procedure or surgery — is a common cause of atelectasis. It changes your regular pattern of breathing and affects the exchange of lung gases. This can cause the air sacs in your lungs to lose air. Nearly everyone who has major surgery has some amount of atelectasis. It often occurs after heart bypass surgery.
When a blocked airway causes atelectasis, it may be due to:
Possible causes of atelectasis due to pressure from outside the lung include:
Factors that make you more likely to get atelectasis include:
A small area of atelectasis, especially in adults, usually can be treated. These complications may come from atelectasis:
Atelectasis in children is often caused by a blockage in the airway. To lower the risk of atelectasis, keep small objects out of the reach of children.
In adults, atelectasis most commonly occurs after major surgery. If you're scheduled for surgery, talk with your doctor about ways to lower your risk. Some research shows that certain breathing exercises and muscle training may lower the risk of atelectasis after some surgeries.
A doctor's examination and plain chest X-ray may be all that's needed to diagnose atelectasis. But other tests may be done to confirm the source of symptoms or figure out the type or severity of atelectasis.
These tests include:
Treatment of atelectasis depends on the cause. Mild atelectasis may go away without treatment. Sometimes, medicines are used to loosen and thin mucus. If the condition is due to a blockage, you may need surgery or other treatments.
Chest physical therapy, also called chest physiotherapy, is a group of airway clearance techniques. They help you breathe deeply after surgery to expand collapsed lung tissue. It's best to learn these techniques before surgery.
These techniques include:
Suctioning mucus or doing a bronchoscopy can get rid of airway blockages. During bronchoscopy, the doctor gently guides a flexible tube down your throat to clear your airways.
If a tumor is causing atelectasis, treatment may involve removing or shrinking the tumor during the bronchoscopy, which may include surgery. Other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation, may or may not be needed.
In some cases, a breathing tube may be needed.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) may help some people who are too weak to cough and have low oxygen levels, also called hypoxemia, after surgery.
Unless you need emergency care, you're likely to first see your family doctor. But in some cases, when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred right away to a pulmonologist. This is a doctor who specializes in lung conditions.
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
To prepare for your appointment, make a list of:
Ask your doctor questions such as:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment if you don't understand something or need more information.
Your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, including:
Take a family member or friend with you to your appointment, if possible, to help you remember everything that is said.