Atelectasis is a collapse of lung tissue affecting part or all of one lung. This condition prevents normal oxygen absoption to healthy tissues.

(Fig 1.18.)
A computed tomography (CT) scan through a patient's chest. The collapsed lung appears at the right of the image.


Atelectasis can result from an obstruction (blockage) of the airways that affects tiny air sacs called alveoli. Alveoli are very thin-walled and contain a rich blood supply. They are important for lung function, since their purpose is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. When the airways are blocked by a mucous "plug," foreign object, or tumor, the alveoli are unable to fill with air and collapse of lung tissue can occur in the affected area. Atelectasis is a potential complication following surgery, especially in individuals who have undergone chest or abdominal operations resulting in associated abdominal or chest pain during breathing. Congenital atelectasis can result from a failure of the lungs to expand at birth. This congenital condition may be localized or may affect all of both lungs.

Causes and symptoms

Causes of atelectasis include insufficient attemps at respiration by the newborn, bronchial obstruction, or absence of surfactant (a substance secreted by alveoli that maintains the stability of lung tissue by reducing the surface tension of fluids that coat the lung). This lack of surfactant reduces the surface area available for effective gas exchange causing it to collapse if severe. Pressure on the lung from fluid or air can cause atelectasis as well as obstruction of lung air passages by thick mucus resulting from various infections and lung diseases. Tumors and inhaled objects can also cause obstruction of the airway, leading to atelectasis.

Anyone undergoing chest or abdominal surgery using general anesthesia is at risk to develop atelectasis, since breathing is often shallow after surgery to avoid pain fromthe surgical incision. Any significant decrease in airflow to the alveoli contributes to pooling of secretions, which in turn can cause infection. Chest injuries causing shallow breathing, including fractured ribs, can cause atelectasis. Common symptoms of atelectasis include shortness of breath and decreased chest wall expansion. If atelectasis only affects a small area of the lung, symptoms are usually minimal. If the condition affects a large area of the lung and develops quickly, the individual may turn blue (cyanotic) or pale, have extreme shortness of breath, and feel a stabbing pain on the affected side. Fever and increased heart ratemay be present if infection accompanies atelectasis.


To diagnose atelectasis, a doctor starts by recording the patient's symptoms and performing a thorough physical examination. When the doctor listens to the lungs through a stethoscope (ausculation), diminished or bronchial breath sounds may be heard. By tapping on the chest (percussion) while listening through the stethoscope, the doctor can often tell if the lung is collapsed. A chest x ray that shows an airless area in the lung confirms the diagnosis of atelectasis. If an obstruction of the airways is suspected, a computed tomography scan (CT) or bronchoscopy may be performed to locate the cause of the blockage.


If atelectasis is due to obstruction of the airway, the first step in treatment is to remove the cause of the blockage. This may be done by coughing, suctioning, or bronchoscopy. If a tumor is the cause of atelectasis, surgery may be necessary to remove it. Antibiotics are commonly used to fight the infection that often accompanies atelectasis. In cases where recurrent or long-lasting infection is disabling or where significant bleeding occurs, the affected section of the lung may be surgically removed.


If atelectasis is caused by a thick mucus "plug" or inhaled foreign object, the patient usually recovers completely when the blockage is removed. If it is caused by a tumor, the outcome depends on the nature of the tumor involved. If atelectasis is a result of surgery, other post-operative conditions and/or complications affect the prognosis.


When recovering from surgery, frequent repositioning in bed along with coughing and deep breathing are important. Coughing and breathing deeply every one to two hours after any surgical operation with general anesthesia is recommended. Breathing exercises and the use of breathing devices, such as an incentive spirometer, may also help prevent atelectasis. Although smokers have a higher risk of developing atelectasis following surgery, stopping smoking six to eight weeks before surgery can help reduce the risk. Increasing fluid intake during respiratory illness or after surgery (by mouth or intravenously) helps lung secretions to remain loose. Increasing humidity may also be beneficial.

Postural drainage techniques can be learned from a respiratory therapist or physical therapist and are a useful tool for anyone affected with a respiratiory illness that could cause atelectasis. Because foreign objects blocking the airway can cause atelectasis, it is very important to keep small objects that might be inhaled away from young children.