Atelectasis

Basic Information

What is Atelectasis?

Collapse of part or all of one lung, preventing normal oxygen absorption.

Frequent signs and symptoms

Sudden, major collapse:

  • Chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath; rapid breathing.
  • Shock (severe weakness, paleness of skin, rapid heartbeat).
  • Dizziness.

Gradual collapse:

  • Cough.
  • Fever.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • No other symptoms.

Causes

Obstruction of small or large lung air passages by:

  • Thick mucous plugs from infection or other disease, including cystic fibrosis.
  • Tumors in the air passages.
  • Tumors or blood vessels outside the air passages, causing pressure on airways.
  • Inhaled objects, such as small toys or peanuts.
  • Prolonged chest or abdominal surgery with general anesthetic.
  • Chest injury or fractured ribs.
  • Penetrating wound.
  • Enlarged lymph glands.

Risk increases with

  • Smoking.
  • Illness that has lowered resistance or weakened the patient.
  • Chronic obstructive lung disease, including emphysema and bronchiectasis.
  • Use of drugs that depress alertness or consciousness, such as sedatives, barbiturates, tranquilizers or alcohol.

Preventive measures

  • Force coughing and deep breathing every 1 to 2 hours after surgery with general anesthesia. Also change position often in bed, if possible.
  • Increase fluid intake during lung illness or after surgery by mouth or intravenously to keep lung secretions loose.
  • Keep small objects that might be inhaled away from young children (peanuts are notorious).

Expected outcomes

  • Atelectasis is seldom life-threatening and usually resolves spontaneously.
  • If atelectasis is caused by a mucous plug or inhaled foreign object, it is curable when the plug or object is removed. If it is caused by a tumor, the outcome depends on the nature of the tumor.

Possible complications

  • Pneumonia.
  • Small lung abscess.
  • Permanent lung scars and collapsed lung tissue.

Atelectasis treatment

General measures

  • Laboratory studies to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood and X-rays of the chest.
  • Surgery to remove tumors.
  • Bronchoscopy to remove foreign objects or a mucous plug.
  • Cooperate with requests to turn, cough and breathe deeply after surgery. Hold a pillow tightly against surgical incisions during the coughing exercises.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Learn to perform postural drainage after hospitalization. An inhalation therapist, nurse or doctor can demonstrate the technique.

Medications

  • Antibiotics to fight infection that inevitably accompanies atelectasis.
  • Pain relievers for minor pain.
  • Don't take sedatives. They may contribute to a recurrence.

Activity

Resume your normal activities as soon as symptoms improve.

Diet

No special diet, but drink at least 8 glasses of water or other fluid daily to thin lung secretions.

Notify your physician if

  • You or a family member has symptoms of atelectasis.
  • The following occur during treatment:
    • Distended abdomen.
    • Sudden shortness of breath.
    • Blue fingernails and lips.
    • Temperature of 102°F (38.9° C) or higher.

Last updated 7 August 2011


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