What is a collapsed lung and who is at risk?

J. Rob Headrick, M.D., thoracic surgeon, CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center

J. Rob Headrick, M.D., thoracic surgeon, CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center

For many people, the thought of lung surgery brings up fears and thoughts of worry about a collapsed lung. People often have misconceptions about a collapsed lung because they oversimplify this complex organ. Lungs are less like a balloon and more like a sponge.  They feel spongy because of the millions of alveoli inside them. Alveoli are tiny air sacs that diffuse oxygen. When we breathe in, our lungs expand and filter the oxygen from the air and pass it into our blood. When we exhale, our lungs release carbon dioxide, a gas that your body makes but doesn’t need.

A collapsed lung is when air escapes from the lung and fills the space between the lung and the chest wall. This build up air puts pressure on the lung, keeping it from expanding like it should when you take a breath. A collapsed lung can result from trauma to the chest, broken ribs, a stab wound or bullet, a hard hit in a contact sport like football or a medical procedure like a lung biopsy or central line placement.

In some cases, a collapsed lung is caused by air blisters (blebs) that break open, sending air into the space around the lung. When a collapsed lung occurs, there’s not a popping effect. It’s more like a nail in your tire that slowly releases pressure over time. When the lung is inadvertently punctured, a person may experience chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, rapid breathing and heartbeat, and a cough.   

The slow buildup of air in the chest makes it harder to breathe – and it’s important to seal the leak quickly and get the air back inside the lung. Sometimes the lung will re-inflate on its own and make the repair with little intervention. The human body is amazing in its ability to solve its own problems. In these cases, we put in a tube to take the leaked air out of the body, which reduces the pressure on the lung, allowing it to close itself.  

Other non-surgical methods to correct a collapsed lung include supplemental oxygen or needle aspiration to remove air in the chest with suction. When it’s not able to heal through one of these methods, we can go in surgically to remove the damaged area and seal it back up.

People who are at greater risk of a collapsed lung include those with underlying lung conditions like COPD, cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, asthma, emphysema and certain types of pneumonia.  Although there is no way to prevent a collapse lung, you can decrease your risk by quitting smoking or choosing not to smoke.   

Want to learn more about your lung and lung cancer? Click here for Dr. Headrick’s simple explanation of lung cancer staging. 

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