What Is Pneumothorax (Collapsed Lung)?
Pneumothorax, also called a collapsed lung, is when air gets between one of your lungs and the wall of your chest. The pressure causes the lung to give way, at least partly.
When this happens, you can inhale, but your lung can’t expand as much as it should.
There are several types of pneumothorax. You could have one or more of them:
- Simple, in which the tissues and organs between your lungs aren’t moved around
- Spontaneous, when it happens without any apparent cause
- Tension, when air continues to enter the space between your lung and your chest wall, raising pressure in your chest
- Traumatic, when it results from an injury
Sometimes a section of your lung can collapse because of a blockage or a lack of pressure inside the lung instead of pressure from outside the lung. That’s a different condition called atelectasis.
Symptoms can range from mild to life threatening. If your case is mild, you may not notice a problem. That’s why it’s important to tell your doctor what’s happening. Common symptoms include:
- Bluish skin
- Chest pain
- Fast breathing
- Fast heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
There are several ways you can get pneumothorax. Causes include:
- Lung disease . Tissue that’s damaged by a lung condition is more likely to tear, allowing air to leak out. This is especially true with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Injury. A broken rib, knife wound, or gunshot wound can puncture the lung. In severe cases, the escaping air can build up pressure on your lung and heart, which might cause life-threatening problems such as loss of blood pressure.
- Mechanical ventilation. This machine that helps you breathe creates uneven pressure in your chest. As a result, your lung might collapse.
- Your period. It’s rare, but cysts could form inside your chest. Within about 3 days before or after the start your period, the cysts release blood between the lung and chest.
Sometimes, otherwise healthy people get pneumothorax. For instance, sacs or blisters full of air may form on the outside of your lung and then burst, creating pressure. This happens most often with tall men who are younger than 40 and who smoke.
Often, someone with a collapsed lung gets another within 1 or 2 years.
Your doctor will probably start with a physical exam.
They’ll listen to your chest through a stethoscope as you breathe and tap your chest to find out if it sounds hollow. You might get an X-ray so your doctor can see the outline of your lung.
If the doctor still isn’t sure after these steps, you may have a CT scan, a series of X-rays that a computer turns into a detailed image of your lung.
Your doctor will probably want you to stay in the hospital so they can watch your progress. They treat a collapsed lung by getting rid of the pressure outside the lung so it can inflate again.
In minor cases without symptoms, the lung can expand again on its own. You may need to breathe oxygen from a container for a short time to help. Even if your case is minor, it’s important to have follow-up visits with your doctor so they can keep an eye on how you’re doing.
If the lung has collapsed further, the doctor may use a needle or tube to release the extra air from your chest. If the doctor uses 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. Pleurodesis is a procedure in which a doctor uses a needle and tube to get medicine like doxycycline into your chest. It triggers inflammation, which helps the lung stick to the chest wall and stay inflated.
It usually takes 1 or 2 weeks to recover. 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. Go for walks or engage in other 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, usually about 3 weeks after your lung has been repaired. On land, don’t go more than 7,500 feet above sea level.
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, your doctor might tell you to stop.
- If you have a lung problem, keep up with your medical visits.