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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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Lung Injuries

What Is a Collapsed Lung (Pneumothorax)? continued...

Another condition called atelectasis is like a collapse of the lung, but the air doesn't escape into the chest. Rather the air sacs in the lung don't adequately expand when taking a breath. This can be caused by mucus plugging or a tumor blocking the airway. Or more commonly it can occur after an operation or by lying immobile for long periods.

To help prevent atelectasis, stop smoking at least six to eight weeks before surgery. Breathe deeply and cough often after a surgery. Also follow directions about moving, exercising, and changing positions after surgery.

What Is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)?

When a lung injury occurs, the lung may become inflamed. Its small blood vessels (capillaries) may leak too much fluid into the lung's air sacs (alveoli). This keeps the lungs from filling with air, causing the respiratory system to fail. This condition is called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). It is a severe form of acute lung injury (ALI). It usually occurs within one to three days after an injury. A type of noncardiac pulmonary edema (a buildup of fluid in the lungs), ARDS can lead to low oxygen levels in the blood. In most cases, people develop ARDS while in the hospital for other health problems, such as a severe injury or illness.

ARDS can be life threatening because organs and other tissues require oxygen to work properly. However, because of improved treatment, many more people survive a lung injury and ARDS than in the past. Nearly 190,000 Americans are affected by ARDS each year.

Signs and Symptoms of Lung Injuries

Signs and symptoms may differ depending upon the cause of the lung injury. You may have symptoms like these, either because of the underlying injury or from ARDS and low oxygen levels:

Diagnosing a Lung Injury

In some cases, the cause of the lung injury is apparent. In other cases, the doctor asks questions and does a physical exam, listening to lungs and heart and checking skin and lip color. To confirm the cause of the symptoms and lung injury, as well as its severity, the doctor may order tests, such as these:

  • An arterial blood gas test shows levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
  • A chest X-ray takes a picture of the lungs and can reveal extra fluid.
  • Blood tests can spot problems such as infection.
  • Sputum cultures help pinpoint the cause of an infection.
  • A computed tomography (CT) scan creates detailed pictures of the lungs to reveal underlying problems such as an obstruction.
  • Bronchoscopy can help evaluate lung infections with the help of a viewing tube or, combined with biopsy, may rule out other problems such as tumors.
  • Heart tests such as an echocardiogram may help rule out other potential causes of fluid buildup in the lungs, such as heart failure.

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