What is atelectasis?

Atelectasis, the collapse of part or all of a lung, is caused by a blockage of the air passages (bronchus or bronchioles) or by pressure on the lung. Risk factors for atelectasis include anesthesia, prolonged bed rest with few changes in position, shallow breathing and underlying lung disease. Mucus that plugs the airway, foreign objects in the airway (common in children) and tumors that obstruct the airway may lead to atelectasis. Large-scale atelectasis may be life threatening, especially in someone who has another lung disease or illness. In a baby or small child, lung collapse due to a mucus obstruction or other causes can be life threatening. 


  • Breathing difficulty

  • Chest pain

  • Cough


Exams and tests include chest X-ray and bronchoscopy.


The goal of treatment is to remove lung secretions and re-expand the affected lung tissue. Treatments include: 

  • Aerosolized respiratory treatments to open the airway

  • Positioning the body on the unaffected side to allow the lung to re-expand

  • Removing obstructions by bronchoscopy

  • Breathing exercises (incentive spirometry)

  • Clap, or percussion, on the chest to loosen mucus

  • Tilting the body (postural drainage) so that the head is lower than the chest to drain mucus

  • Treating a tumor or underlying condition, if present.


The collapsed lung usually reinflates gradually once the obstruction has been removed. However, some residual scarring or damage may occur. 

Atelectasis is treated by the Division of Pulmonary Medicine.

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