Is a Collapsed Lung Making You Breathless?

Suddenly you’re short of breath. Or you feel a sharp pain in your chest. While these symptoms can be caused by lots of health problems, they can be triggered by lung conditions known as pneumothorax (collapsed lung) or atelectasis (partial collapsed lung). 

Symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of a collapsed or partially collapsed lung can help you know when it’s time to seek emergency care.

Who’s at Risk? 

Risk factors for a pneumothorax (collapsed lung) include:

  • Smoking: The more and longer you smoke, the more you’re at risk.
  • Age: One type of collapsed lung is caused by ruptured air blebs. It’s most likely to occur in tall, thin people between 20 and 40 years old. 
  • Genetics: Certain types of pneumothorax run in families. 
  • Lung disease: Having a lung disease — especially chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — makes a collapsed lung more likely.
  • Mechanical ventilation: People who use mechanical ventilation to help them breathe are at higher risk.
  • Previous pneumothorax: Anyone who has already had a collapsed lung is at increased risk for another.

These health care procedures and conditions can increase the risk for atelectasis (a partially collapsed lung):

  • Surgery under anesthesia (medicine to make you sleep), which can slow or stop your normal breathing effort 
  • Conditions that make breathing painful — for example, chest or abdominal surgery, an injury or broken ribs
  • Being on a ventilator (a machine that supports breathing)
  • An airway that’s blocked by a foreign object, a mucus plug, lung cancer or a poorly placed breathing tube
  • Lung diseases that makes deep breathing difficult, like lung cancer or pneumonia

If you smoke or are obese, your risk for atelectasis also increases.

Being aware of the signs and symptoms of a collapsed or partially collapsed lung can help you know when it’s time to seek emergency care.

What Causes Pneumothorax and Atelectasis?

Collapsed Lung small

A collapsed or partially collapsed lung happens when air invades the pleural space, the area between the lung and the chest wall. Causes include:

  • A blunt or penetrating chest injury, like one caused by a car accident
  • Lung diseases such as pneumonia or lung cancer, because damaged lung tissue is more likely to collapse
  • Using a ventilator to breathe 
  • Chest or abdominal surgery 
  • Rupturing of small air blebs that can develop on the top of your lungs. If they burst, air will leak into the space surrounding the lungs
  • A blocked airway 

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms for both conditions are similar:

  • Shortness of breath 
  • Sudden chest pain

Call your doctor right away if you experience either one. If breathing becomes increasingly difficult or your chest pain is severe, head to the ER. 

How Are They Diagnosed and Treated?

To confirm if you have atelectasis or pneumothorax, your health care provider will examine you carefully. She may give you one or more of these tests: 

  • Lab tests to check oxygen and blood gas levels
  • Chest X-rays or CT scans of the lungs
  • Bronchoscopy (a procedure to look inside the airways)

Your doctor’s goal is to reinflate the collapsed lung tissue. Treatment may include:

  • Insertion of a chest tube
  • Clapping on the chest to loosen mucus plugs in the airway
  • Deep breathing exercises, often using an incentive spirometer
  • Removing blockages in the airways

After treatment, you will be given directions on how to care for yourself and when to follow up with your doctor. If your condition needs additional treatment, you may be admitted to the hospital for more procedures.