Home > Health Library > Collapsed Lung (Pneumothorax)
A collapsed lung
(pneumothorax) is a buildup of air in the space between the lung and the chest
wall (pleural space). As the amount of air in this space increases, the
pressure against the lung causes the lung to collapse. This prevents your lung
from expanding properly when you try to breathe in, causing shortness of breath
and chest pain.
A pneumothorax may become life-threatening if
the pressure in your chest prevents the lungs from getting enough oxygen into
A pneumothorax is
usually caused by an injury to the chest, such as a broken rib or puncture
wound. It may also occur suddenly without an injury.
A pneumothorax can result from damage to the lungs caused by conditions
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),
cystic fibrosis, and
pneumonia. Spontaneous pneumothorax can also occur in
people who don't have lung disease. This happens when an air-filled blister
(bleb) on the lung ruptures and releases air into the pleural space.
People who smoke cigarettes are much more likely to develop a pneumothorax
than those who don't. Also, the more you smoke, the greater your chances of
having a pneumothorax.
Symptoms depend on the size
of the pneumothorax. In minor cases, you may not realize you have a
pneumothorax. In more severe cases, symptoms will develop rapidly and may lead
Symptoms may include:
Symptoms may become worse with altitude changes (such as flying in an airplane or going underground or underwater).
A pneumothorax usually is diagnosed through a physical exam and a
chest X-ray. Your
doctor may also perform blood tests to measure the level of oxygen
in your blood.
computed tomography (CT) scan or
ultrasound may be needed to diagnose the severity of
your condition and help plan your treatment.
pneumothorax may only require observation by your
doctor; in some cases, oxygen may be given (through a mask). More
serious cases are treated by inserting a needle or a chest tube into the chest
cavity. Both of these procedures relieve the pressure on the lung and allow it
Surgery may be needed if the original treatment does
not work or if the pneumothorax returns.
If you have had one pneumothorax, you have an increased risk for another.
Nearly all recurrences happen within 2 years of the first pneumothorax. If you
smoke, quitting smoking can reduce your risk of another pneumothorax.
The American Lung Association provides programs of
education, community service, and advocacy. Some of the topics available
include asthma, tobacco control, emphysema, infectious disease, asbestos, carbon monoxide, radon,
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
(NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing
April 13, 2011
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & R. Steven Tharratt, MD, MPVM, FACP, FCCP - Pulmonology, Critical Care Medicine, Medical Toxicology
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