Atelectasis is the complete or partial collapse of a long or a lobe of a lung. It is one of the most common breathing complications after surgery.
What is atelectasis?
Atelectasis is a complete or partial collapse of a lung and develops when the alveoli, or tiny air sacs, within the lung become deflated. This means the lungs cannot bring oxygen in or let carbon dioxide escape.
Depending on the cause, the amount of lung tissue affected by atelectasis varies. Because it can reduce the amount of oxygen available in the body, atelectasis can be very serious. Atelectasis can lead to low blood oxygen, lung scarring, pneumonia or respiratory failure.
To determine if someone is suffering from atelectasis, a doctor may perform a CT scan; ultrasound; oximetry, which is a test where a small device placed on the finger measures oxygen in the blood; or a bronchoscopy, a procedure in which a flexible, lighted tube is threaded down the throat so that the doctor can see obstructions in the airways.
What causes atelectasis?
Atelectasis can be caused by a blockage of the air passages or by pressure on the outside of the lung. Almost everyone who undergoes surgery has atelectasis from the anesthesia because anesthesia changes airflow within the lungs and the absorption of gases and pressures.
Blockages that can lead to atelectasis include:
- Mucus plug, which is an accumulation of mucus in the airways
- Foreign object(s)
- Narrowing of major airways due to disease
- A tumor in a major airway
- Blood Clot(s)
Other non-obstructive causes of atelectasis include:
- Injury such as chest trauma
- Pleural effusion, which is a buildup of fluid between the tissues that line the lungs and the inside of the chest wall
- Pneumothorax, which is when air leaks into the space between the lungs and chest wall
- Scarring of lung tissue
- Tumor pressed against the lung
What are the symptoms of atelectasis?
Depending on how much of the lung is affected, a person may not experience any symptoms at all.
If someone does experience symptoms, they may include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid, shallow breath
- Chest pain
- Low-grade fever
Most of the time, atelectasis will occur while someone is in the hospital. If you have trouble breathing, seek medical attention.
What factors increase the risk of atelectasis?
There are various things that can increase the risk of atelectasis.
Risk factors include:
- Premature birth
- Impaired swallowing function
- Conditions that interfere with coughing, yawning or sighing
- Lung diseases such as asthma or cystic fibrosis
- Bed confinement with little position change
- Abdominal or chest surgery
- General anesthesia
- Shallow breathing
- Respiratory muscle weakness
- Prolonged smoking
- Age – children between the ages of 1 and 3 are at a higher risk for atelectasis
What are the treatments for atelectasis?
The treatment of atelectasis will vary depending on the cause. If a small area of the lung is affected, a patient may not need any treatment. If the cause is an underlying condition such as a tumor, treatment may involve the removal of the tumor, chemotherapy or radiation.
If a patient needs treatment that is not caused by an underlying condition, they may be taught techniques that help them breathe more deeply to re-expand the collapsed lung tissue. This may include coughing, clapping on the chest, performing deep-breathing exercises or positioning the body so that the head is lower than the chest.
If atelectasis is caused by an object obstructing an airway, a doctor might suction the mucus or use a bronchoscopy to remove the obstruction.