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Collapsed Lung: Non-Injury-Related

What is a non-injury-related collapsed lung?

Collapsed lung is a term used to refer to pneumothorax, a potentially life-threatening condition. A pneumothorax happens when air enters the space between the rib cage and one of your lungs. The air causes part or all of the lung to collapse. It is then hard to breathe normally and your body gets less oxygen.

When a lung collapses without an obvious injury, it is called a non-injury-related, or spontaneous, pneumothorax.

How does it occur?

A pneumothorax can suddenly occur for no clear reason in otherwise healthy young people, with or without strenuous activity.

Middle-aged and older adults whose lungs have been damaged by asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema may have a spontaneous pneumothorax. In these situations the chest fills with air and the air has no way to escape, causing a very high pressure in the chest. The spontaneous pneumothorax can become a tension pneumothorax which is life threatening because the air in the chest not only pushes on a lung, but it also pushes on the heart and keeps the heart from pumping normally.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are:

  • chest pain
  • trouble breathing
  • sometimes lightheadedness.

In cases of tension pneumothorax, your neck veins are enlarged. In addition, the breathing movements on the affected side of the chest may look different.

How is it diagnosed?

If the healthcare provider suspects pneumothorax, diagnosis and treatment are usually done in a hospital.

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and examine you. You will have a chest X-ray. You may need an electrocardiogram (ECG). An ECG is a painless test to look at the electrical activity of the heart. You may have a blood test to measure the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. This is called an arterial blood gas test, or ABG.

How is it treated?

Immediate treatment is to remove the air so the lung can reexpand to its original capacity. You will be given an anesthetic and then the air will be removed through a suction tube inserted through the wall of your chest. If the pneumothorax is small, the air may be removed simply through a needle and syringe. You will feel immediate relief, but it may take several days for the lung to totally reexpand.

Your healthcare provider will check your breathing. Your heart rate and blood pressure will be checked often. You will be given oxygen if you need it.

If necessary, a chest tube will be inserted into the chest (between the ribs) to remove the air and allow the lung to reinflate. The chest tube has a seal that will keep the area airtight while the underlying problem is treated.

If you have a tension pneumothorax, quick treatment is needed to relieve the pressure on the heart and lungs. Your healthcare provider may use a procedure called needle thoracentesis to reduce pain and discomfort. For this procedure, a needle is inserted into your chest to remove the air. The air immediately flows out through the needle. This helps the symptoms to improve quickly by allowing the outside air to escape. The lung reinflates, taking the pressure off the heart.

How long will the effects last?

Recovery from a collapsed lung generally takes 1 or 2 weeks. A small pneumothorax in a healthy adult may heal in a few days without treatment. More serious cases (a larger collection of air) need careful observation and may need treatment.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Follow the treatment your healthcare provider prescribes.
  • Prop pillows behind your head and chest and take pain-relieving medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce pain.
  • Rest.
  • Avoid loud talking and laughing.
  • Take a cough suppressant to avoid coughing, if necessary.
  • Raise the head of your bed or use a couple of pillows to raise your head.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Ask your healthcare provider if you should be doing deep breathing exercises and how you should be doing them.
  • Call your healthcare provider if:
    • You have symptoms of collapsed lung again.
    • Your temperature rises to 101.5° F (38.6° C) or higher.
    • You have chest pain or shortness of breath that gets worse.

How can I prevent a non-injury-related collapsed lung?

Prevent recurrence by getting the necessary medical treatment for any respiratory problem, such as asthma or emphysema, as soon as symptoms appear. Also, do not smoke.

If the pneumothorax occurs in both lungs or more than once in the same lung, you may need surgery to prevent it from happening again.

Disclaimer: This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information provided is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.

HIA File resp4808.htm Release 13/2010

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