Atelectasis: symptoms and causes

The word atelectasis comes from atele-vs (incomplete) and ectasis (expansion). It is a disorder in which a part of the lung is devoid of air and collapses.

It can be of the whole lung or of a part (lobe). Generally, it is caused by obstruction of the airways or by pressure on the outside of the lung. Therefore, the alveoli are deflated or filled with fluid.

Is a frequent complication of certain respiratory problems. For example, it can occur in cystic fibrosis, in lung tumors, thoracic surgeries, and so on. Even atelectasis can occur after inhaling a foreign object.

Atelectasis can cause breathing difficulties. In this article we explain what it is. Also what are their symptoms and their causes. Keep reading!

Symptoms of atelectasis

Is important differentiate it from pneumothorax. A pneumothorax occurs when air escapes from the lung. Atelectasis is the decrease of air in the lungs with loss of volume of the affected lung, while pneumothorax is the presence of air in the pleura.

Atelectasis may not cause any obvious symptoms. When it affects a small part of the lung, or if it develops slowly, the symptoms may be imperceptible. On the contrary, if it affects a large number of alveoli, the symptoms can be serious. It also happens when it is established quickly. Among the symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Restless and shallow breathing.
  • Cough.
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain: occurs mainly when the cause is trauma or pneumonia.
  • Tachycardia and hypotension.
  • Cyanosis: is due to hypoxemia. It is the result of the decrease in gas exchange.

When breathing becomes progressively difficult, it is essential to consult a doctor.

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Causes of atelectasis

Atelectasis, in the first place, may be caused by a obstruction of the bronchi or bronchioles. It can also be by pressure on the outside of the lung.

The general anesthesia It is a common cause. This is because the regular rhythm of breathing changes. In this way, it affects the exchange of pulmonary gases. Therefore, anesthesia can cause the alveoli to deflate. Almost all people who undergo major surgery develop a certain degree of atelectasis.

To mention the most common causes of atelectasis, we distinguish between obstructive and non-obstructive atelectasis.

Causes of obstructive atelectasis

  • Strange bodies: It is common in children. They tend to inhale small objects, such as toy parts.
  • Mucus plug: it is an accumulation of mucus in the respiratory tract. It usually happens in surgeries, since they make it difficult to expel the mucus due to not being able to cough. It is also because many medications used decrease the depth of breathing. Thus, the mucus accumulates. In people with cystic fibrosis or asthma, mucus plugs are common.
  • Tumors: a tumor in the pathways causes its narrowing. Thus, it makes possible the obstruction.

Causes of non-obstructive atelectasis

Possible causes include:

  • Trauma: When they occur, the pain reduces the depth of the breaths. It can cause compression of the lungs.
  • Pleural effusion: It consists of the accumulation of fluid between the pulmonary pleura and the inside of the chest wall.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Scars in the lung tissue. Injuries, lung diseases or surgery can cause scarring.

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To diagnose atelectasis, it is usually enough to have an adequate clinical examination and an x-ray. Even so, a series of techniques can be used to confirm the diagnosis or measure the severity.

Between them include computerized tomography, bronchoscopy, ultrasound and oximetry. In fact, the bronchoscopy allows to observe the obstructions, and even to eliminate the blockage.


The treatment It depends on the cause. In fact, mild atelectasis can go away without treatment. Therefore, we list the main ones:

  • Remove obstruction by bronchoscopy
  • Percuss the thorax to loosen the mucus plugs.
  • Inhaled medications to open the airways. Medications are also used to dilute mucus.
  • Treat the tumor in case there is

In some cases, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is used. It is useful in people who can not cough and suffer from hypoxemia, usually after surgery.


Atelectasis It is a disorder that can go unnoticed. However, it can be a serious problem, or be a consequence of an underlying disorder. Therefore, it is necessary to know its causes and symptoms to establish the best treatment, if necessary. In case of any respiratory difficulty, it is necessary go to the doctor.