Lungs are amazing organs. They allow us to breathe in the oxygen we need to live and breathe out a waste product called carbon dioxide. Each lung expands like a balloon when we inhale air, but what happens if the balloon won’t inflate? This is known as pneumothorax, more commonly called a collapsed lung.
If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. Pneumothorax is a rare medical condition, but it does occur for thousands of people each year.
Learn the causes of collapsed lungs, the symptoms and your options for treatment.
What is a collapsed lung?
Your lungs sit inside your rib cage (chest cavity). Each lung has a thin wrapping around the outside that keeps the air and gas inside the lung. If there is a leak or hole in the lung and the lining around it, this air will leak outside the lung and build up in the chest cavity.
“The chest cavity is a fixed space, like a box, and the air outside the lung will squish the lung and blood vessels as the air and gas fill the space between the chest wall and the lungs,” said Stephanie Worrell, MD, a thoracic surgeon at Banner Health in Tucson, AZ. “As the pressure and amount of air in this cavity increase, it puts pressure on your lung making it unable to expand when you breathe but also stopping the flow of blood to the heart—which can be life-threatening.”
What causes the lungs to collapse?
A collapsed lung can occur for many reasons, but most often it is the result of a fall or injury that causes a rib to break and tear the lung.
“Any blunt injury to your chest can cause a lung collapse,” Dr. Worrell said. “This can be due to car crashes or falls or from medical procedures that involve the inserting of needles into the chest.”
Other known causes of pneumothorax include:
- Having underlying lung disease: cystic fibrosis, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), lung cancer, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), whooping cough and asthma
- Smoking cigarettes and marijuana
- Spontaneously, most often in those who are tall and thin
- Small air blisters (blebs) that develop on the top of the lungs and sometimes burst, allowing air to leak into the cavity
How do I know if my lung is collapsed?
A collapsed lung is treatable, but it can be life-threatening. Dr. Worrell said you should seek medical attention immediately—call 911 or have someone take you to the closest emergency room—if you have any of these symptoms:
- Sudden shortness of breath or difficulty taking a full breath
- Sudden, sharp chest pain or chest tightness
- Shoulder pain that gets worse when you breathe in (inhale)
More severe symptoms may also include a racing heart, skin discoloration (bluish color) due to lack of oxygen and weakness.
“It’s always essential to get prompt medical treatment for a suspected collapsed lung,” Dr. Worrell said.
How is pneumothorax diagnosed?
Generally, a chest X-ray or CT scan (for more detailed images) is performed to confirm that a lung is collapsed.
What is the treatment for a collapsed lung?
“The goal of treatment is to relieve the pressure in your lung, allowing it to re-expand,” Dr. Worrell said. “Depending on the cause of the collapsed lung, another goal is to prevent it from occurring again.”
For small tears, your provider might treat you by giving oxygen and monitoring you. Sometimes a collapsed lung can get better on its own within a few weeks with rest.
For larger tears, the excess air will need to be removed.
“Often, a small chest tube is placed to remove the air and allow the lungs to re-expand,” Dr. Worrell said. “If it is the first time this has ever happened, that is likely all that is needed. If it happens more than once or you plan to have a high-risk career (as an airline pilot, scuba diver or professional weightlifter), then surgery is recommended.”
The small operation will permanently stick the lining of the chest to the chest wall (pleurodesis) so there is no longer a space for air to collect.
Your provider may also give you instructions on breathing exercises, called incentive spirometry, to help expand your lungs and air sacs to prevent pneumonia.
Can I prevent a collapsed lung?
Unfortunately, there is no way to completely prevent pneumothorax since it can occur spontaneously or due to trauma. However, if you smoke or vape, you should stop. Smoking can increase your risk of getting a collapsed lung.
If you’ve had a collapsed lung before, you should also talk to your provider if you fly on an airplane often. Flying at an elevation of 8,000 feet or higher can be dangerous, as the pressure changes can cause your lungs to re-collapse.
A pneumothorax is a collapsed lung. It occurs when air leaks into the space between your lung and chest wall (rib cage). This air puts pressure on the outside of your lung and makes it collapse.
While it is a rare condition, it can be life-threatening. If you are experiencing symptoms or are concerned you may be at risk for developing a collapsed lung, talk to your health care provider.
Are you experiencing symptoms and have concerns about a collapsed lung?
Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider.
Schedule an appointment with a pulmonologist.
If you have sudden chest pain or shortness of breath, call 911 or visit the Banner Health emergency department closest to you.