What Is a Collapsed Lung?

When air gets between one of your lungs and the wall of your chest, the pressure can bear down on the lung and make it give way, at least partly. That’s called a collapsed lung.

When this happens, you can inhale, but the lung can’t expand as much as it should.

In the mildest cases, you may not notice a problem. If you do feel something, the symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening. So you have to tell your doctor what’s happening.

When you’re getting checked out, you might hear your doctor or nurse refer to this as a “pneumothorax” (pronounced noo-mo-THOR-ax).


Chest pains -- they start suddenly, in most cases -- and shortness of breath are the basic symptoms. Here are other signs you might have a collapsed lung:

  • Your skin is bluish.
  • You’re tired.
  • You breathe rapidly.
  • Your heartbeat speeds up.
  • You’re coughing.


When you go to your doctor, she’ll probably start with a physical exam.

She’ll listen to your chest through her stethoscope as you inhale, and she’ll tap your chest to find out if it sounds hollow. You might need an X-ray, which should let your doctor see the lung’s outline.

A blood test may figure in. If your blood contains less oxygen and more carbon dioxide than normal, that can signal a collapsed lung.

And if all these steps don’t settle it, you may need a CT scan. That’s a series of X-rays that a computer turns into a very detailed image.


There are several ways you can get a collapsed lung. They include:

  • When you have lung disease. Tissue that’s damaged by a lung condition is more likely to collapse. This is especially true with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Even when you don’t have lung disease. These cases can happen in otherwise healthy people. For instance, sacs full of air may form on the outside of your lung, then burst, creating pressure. That condition occurs most often with tall men who are younger than 40 and smoke.
  • When you are injured. A fractured rib, knife wound or gunshot wound can puncture the lung. In severe cases, the escaping air can build up pressure on the lung and heart, which might cause life-threatening problems such as loss of blood pressure.
  • When you are having your period. In very rare cases, cysts form inside a woman’s chest. Within about 3 days before or after the start of the menstrual cycle, the cysts release blood between the lung and chest.

In many cases, someone who has a collapsed lung gets another within 1 to 2 years.



Your doctor treats a collapsed lung by basically getting rid of the pressure outside the lung so it can inflate again.

In cases so minor that no symptoms show up, the lung may expand again on its own. Some people may need to temporarily breathe oxygen from a container to help. Either way, it’s important to have follow-up visits to your doctor so she can keep an eye on your progress.

If the lung has collapsed farther, your doctor may use a needle or tube to suck the extra air from the chest. If there’s a tube, it might have to stay attached for several hours or several days.

Cases involving lung disease, an accident or repeated collapsed lungs may need surgery or pleurodesis. The latter is a procedure in which a doctor injects medicine such as doxycycline through a tube in your chest. It triggers inflammation and helps the lung adhere to the chest wall and stay inflated.

While It’s Healing

It usually takes 1 to 2 weeks to recover from a collapsed lung. But you have to wait for your doctor to say that you’re OK. Until then:

  • Return to your ordinary routine a little bit at a time. Feel free to go for walks or engage in low-impact exercise.
  • Keep a lookout. Watch for chest pains or other signs that you haven’t healed, such as a fever or coughing up blood.
  • Lift only light objects. Don’t pick up anything heavier than a gallon of milk. Don’t vacuum or mow the grass.
  • Be careful how you exercise. Don’t do anything that jars your body, such as running or biking. Don’t play contact sports.
  • Remember air pressure. Don’t get on an airplane until your doctor gives the OK – that’s usually about 3 weeks after your lung has been repaired. On land, don’t go more than 7,500 feet above sea level.


Remember, if you've had a collapsed lung, it can happen again, so you need to take care of yourself. Some tips:

  • If you smoke, ask your doctor for help quitting.
  • If you scuba dive, you may have to stop; your doctor can tell you one way or the other. (Snorkeling might be an alternative).
  • If you have some kind of lung ailment, keep up with your medical visits. That way, you’ll always know where you stand.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on December 24, 2018



Cleveland Clinic: “Collapsed Lung.”

Core Physicians: “Collapsed Lung: Non-Injury-Related.”

Intermountain Healthcare: “Collapsed Lung.”

Lourdes Health System: “Surgery for Collapsed Lung.”

Mayo Clinic: “Pneumothorax.”

Merck Manual Consumer Version: “Pneumothorax.”

University of Wisconsin Madison, School of Medicine and Public Health: “What is Pleurodesis?”

NIH. U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Primary spontaneous pneumothorax.”

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