The oxygen-rich air you inhale circulates inside your lungs through a network called the bronchoalveolar tree. From there, oxygen enters your bloodstream and continues to your heart and various other organs and tissues.
A collapse of the lung, also called pneumothorax, occurs when the air that normally circulates within your lung leaks into the space between your lung and your chest wall called the pleural space. A buildup of air increases the pressure on your lung, causing it to collapse. In most cases, only a portion of the lung collapses, leaving the rest of the lung intact.
When your lung collapses, it can’t expand as fully as it normally does when you try to breathe in. This can lead to shortness of breath and chest pain. A severe lung collapse can cause:
A collapsed lung is a serious condition that can be life-threatening if not treated immediately.
A collapse of the lung can result from damage to the lungs, trauma to the chest, or air blisters within the lung itself.
A collapsed lung is usually caused by trauma to the chest. Traumatic events can include:
- a rib fracture
- a gunshot wound
- a knife wound
- a hard blow to the chest
- vigorous CPR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation
- a lung biopsy, which involves taking a sample of lung tissue by inserting a needle into the chest
- endoscopy procedures
Damaged lung tissue
Damaged lung tissue can also cause a collapse of the lung. Damaged tissue isn’t as strong as healthy tissue, so it collapses more easily. This damage can be a result of lung diseases and infections, including:
- lung cancer
- sarcoidosis, which is a long-term inflammatory disease
- pulmonary fibrosis, which is a scarring of the lung tissue
- cystic fibrosis, which is a hereditary condition caused by a buildup of thick mucus in the lungs and other organs
Air blebs are small, air-filled blisters that form on the outer lining of your lungs. Sometimes, these air blisters rupture and release air into the pleural space, causing the lung to collapse. This can result from changes in air pressure. Air blebs usually aren’t a sign of any disease or other lung conditions.
When a collapse of the lung first occurs, you may feel a sharp pain in your chest that gets worse when you cough. You may also have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
You may experience more symptoms if the collapse affects a larger portion of your lung. These symptoms include:
- a rapid heartbeat
- a tight feeling in the chest
- getting tired easily
- bluish skin tone
- low blood pressure
- flared nostrils when breathing
A collapse of the lung should be treated as a medical emergency. Even if the symptoms are mild, you should call 911 or go to the hospital as soon as possible.
Your doctor will listen to your lungs with a medical device called a stethoscope while asking you to breathe in deeply and exhale. If your lung has collapsed, your doctor will have trouble hearing breath sounds from the affected lung.
Your doctor may also order imaging tests to get a better look at your lungs. A chest X-ray is often used to diagnose a collapsed lung. Your doctor may also perform a CT scan to view the affected lung in more detail.
Treatments for a collapsed lung are designed to restore lung function by removing external pressure on the lung.
A mild or small lung collapse usually doesn’t require treatment. Your doctor will monitor your condition carefully to ensure it improves over time. You may need chest X-rays throughout the course of observation. You may also get extra oxygen to help your lungs recover. Oxygen is usually given through a mask. It’s important to get plenty of rest to speed up the recovery process.
If your lung collapse affects a larger area of your lung, you’ll need treatment to remove the excess air from your chest cavity. A chest tube may be used to remove the extra air. The flexible plastic tube will be placed between the ribs and inserted into the pleural space. A machine attached to the chest tube will then suction out the air from your chest cavity. The chest tube may need to be left in place for several days if you have a large lung collapse.
If an air leak is the underlying cause of the collapse, surgery may be necessary to repair the leak. During the procedure, a surgeon will make two small incisions, or cuts, in your chest and insert a tiny camera into one of them to view the lung. A surgical tool will then be inserted into the other incision and used to close the leak.
Surgery may also be done if an air bleb caused the collapse. The surgeon will simply sew the ruptured blister closed.
A collapsed lung usually doesn’t cause any future health complications if it’s treated promptly. However, if the collapse was caused by trauma to your lung, the condition can happen again. You’re also more likely have another collapsed lung if you’re a smoker and continue to smoke cigarettes.
It’s important to call your doctor right away if you think you’re having another collapse of the lung. A delay in treatment can lead to complications or a longer recovery.