What Are the Causes of Atelectasis?

Valerie Goldberg
Valerie Goldberg

Atelectasis is the medical term for a partially or completely collapsed lung, which can be both painful and dangerous. There are multiple causes of atelectasis, including mucus, a tumor, a blood clot and a foreign object caught in a person's airway. Symptoms include chest pain, severe coughing and trouble breathing. A person who believes he or she may have a collapsed lung should get to a doctor right away.

Anatomical model of the human body
Anatomical model of the human body

One of the more typical causes of atelectasis is excessive mucus. This is common after many types of surgery. Medications administered during or after surgery can sometimes cause the lungs to inflate less, boosting the probability of an increase in mucus in the lungs. Patients who need to cough following surgery should cough deeply to help clear the mucus and avoid a lung collapse. A person who suffers from cystic fibrosis also may experience a partial lung collapse stemming from an increase in mucus during an asthma attack.

Tumors also are among the causes of atelectasis. Both benign and cancerous tumors, if they are large enough, can cause a lung to collapse. Surgery or radiation therapy is usually needed to remove a lung tumor or other growth.

Another issue that can be responsible for atelectasis is a blood clot. Blood clots are clumps of hardened blood that occur throughout the body. Some blood clots form in another part of the body and move into the lungs. The clot is a solid mass, so breathing becomes an issue and a lung collapse is possible. A doctor can prescribe medication to shrink or dissolve a patient's blood clot.

It is possible for atelectasis to occur in children. Perhaps the most common of causes of atelectasis in children is inhaling a foreign object. Some young children tend to put small items such as toys, buttons, rocks and coins in their mouths. Once in a child's mouth, these items can be easily and accidentally inhaled. Small, hard foods, such as popcorn and nuts, also can become stuck in a child's airway, leading to atelectasis.

Pressure on the lungs can cause a non-obstructive type of atelectasis. Non-obstructive atelectasis can occur as the result of a hard blow to the chest or scar tissue developing on the outside of the lungs post-surgery. Serious cases of pneumonia also can potentially cause atelectasis. Pneumonia patients should speak to their doctors about tips for avoiding lung collapse while they are ill.

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      Anatomical model of the human body