Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treating Pneumothorax

What are the Symptoms of Pneumothorax?

Symptoms normally come on almost immediately and commonly begin with chest pain. Other signals that the problem may be a collapsed lung are:

  • Sharp, stabbing chest pain that worsens when trying to breath in
  • Shortness of breath
  • Bluish skin caused by a lack of oxygen
  • Fatigue
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • A dry, hacking cough

How Pneumothorax is Diagnosed

During an initial physical exam, your doctor will want to specifically listen to your chest through a stethoscope. As you breathe, they may tap your chest and listen for hollow sounds. Since higher than normal levels of carbon dioxide and low levels of oxygen can be indicators, your doctor may suggest an arterial blood gas test to test these levels. To get a definite diagnosis, your doctor will most likely need to order an imaging test such as a chest X-ray, an ultrasound or CT scan.

How to Treat a Collapsed Lung

The goal of treatment is to relieve the pressure on the lung and allow it to re-inflate. The type of treatment selected will depend on the cause and severity of the collapse, and on the patient’s overall health.

For a minor pneumothorax, your doctor may simply keep an eye on you, as the lung may re-inflate on its own, usually over the course of several weeks. In these cases, your doctor may suggest supplemental oxygen and require you to schedule follow-up visits to ensure that the problem does not worsen.

For more serious pneumothorax, a needle aspiration or chest tube can be inserted into the chest cavity to remove the excess air. During a needle aspiration, a needle attached to a syringe is inserted between the ribs into the air-filled space that is pressing on the collapsed lung and is used to suction out the excess air. A chest tube involves a similar insertion that involves a one-way valve device that continuously removes air until the lung re-inflates. The tube may need to stay in for a few hours, or even a few days, to ensure that the lung does not collapse again.

In cases that involve an accident, or repeated collapsed lungs, the next step is a non-surgical repair of the leak. This can be done in several ways and is sometimes called pleurodesis.

In the most extreme cases, surgery may be necessary to close the leak or remove the collapsed portion of the lung.

Preventing Pneumothorax

Anyone who suffers from a collapsed lung will have to monitor their health to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Avoiding air travel for the first week after a collapse is often suggested. Diving puts patients at high risk, so most doctors suggest permanently avoiding it. Also, people who smoke are at increased risk of a pneumothorax, so quitting is highly recommended.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: June 7, 2024

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