Collapsed Lung or Pneumothorax

Collapsed lung

A collapsed lung is also known as a pneumothorax. It occurs when there is a build-up of air in the space between the lungs and the rib cage. Here we explain the symptoms, causes, and treatment for a collapsed lung.

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  • Collapsed lung symptoms include sharp chest pain, which is worse when breathing deeply.
  • The patient will feel tightness in the chest and shortness of breath.
  • A dry cough may be experienced.
  • In more severe cases rapid heart rate, fatigue and a bluish tint to the skin and lips may be seen.
  • The severity of symptoms depends on how much air has entered the pleural space (between the ribs and lungs).
  • In the most severe case, known as a tension pneumothorax, the air which has entered cannot escape at all. This results in symptoms getting rapidly worse.
  • If you suspect a Collapsed lung, seek medical attention immediately.

What is a Collapsed lung?

A pneumothorax or collapsed lung occurs when there is a build-up of air in the space between the lungs and the rib cage. This space is known as the pleural space. As a result, pressure on the lung is increased, therefore, it cannot expand as much as it usually can.

A collapsed lung will usually only occur on one side at a time. There are two types:

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Traumatic Pneumothorax

  • As the name suggests, occurs as a result of a traumatic injury, allowing air from outside the body into this space.
  • This may occur with injuries such as broken ribs or gunshot or stab wounds.
  • It may also happen as a complication following chest surgery.

Spontaneous Pneumothorax

  • Occurs for no apparent reason.
  • What happens is that an air sack on the surface of the lungs called a Bulla, bursts.
  • The bulla may burst during heavy exercise or certain activities including scuba diving, flying or hiking at altitude.
  • Respiratory diseases such as Asthma and COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease also increase the risk.


  • Following a lung X-ray to confirm the diagnosis, the appropriate treatment is undertaken, depending on the severity of the condition.
  • Minor cases usually heal on their own in a few days.
  • The gap through which the air entered the space heals and the body absorbs the excess air. Extra Oxygen may be needed.
  • More major injuries require a chest drain to be inserted into the pleural space. This allows the air to disband.
  • The drain may be kept in place for anything from a couple of days to a few weeks, depending on the healing time for the injury.
  • In repeated cases, a procedure known as pleurodesis may be performed. This uses a special chemical to stick the two layers of lung lining together, so air cannot get in between them.
This article has been written with reference to the bibliography.
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