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What causes atelectasis?

Anesthesia, prolonged bed rest with few changes in position and shallow breathing, and underlying lung diseases are risk factors for atelectasis. Secretions that plug the airway, foreign objects (common in children) in the airway, and tumors that

obstruct the airway may lead to atelectasis.

The most common cause of atelectasis is an obstruction of a large bronchus (one of the two main branches of the trachea leading directly to the lungs). Smaller airways can also become blocked. The obstruction may be caused by a plug of mucus, a tumor, or an inhaled foreign object inside the bronchus.

In an adult, small regions of atelectasis are usually not life-threatening, because unaffected parts of the lung compensate for the loss of function in the affected area. Large-scale atelectasis, especially in someone who has another lung disease or illness may be life-threatening. In a baby or small child, lung collapse due to a mucus obstruction or other causes can be life-threatening.

Anyone undergoing chest or abdominal surgery using general anesthesia is at risk to develop atelectasis, since breathing is often shallow after surgery to avoid pain from the surgical incision. Any significant decrease in airflow to the alveoli contributes to pooling of secretions, which in turn can cause infection. Chest injuries causing shallow breathing, including fractured ribs, can cause atelectasis.

Compressive atelectasis results when the air passages are closed from the outside. An enlarging lung tumor may press on the outside of the larger bronchial tubes, resulting in partial or complete closure.

Adhesive or congenital atelectasis results from the lack of surfactant. Surfactant is a protein found naturally in the lungs that helps with gas exchange in the alveoli. It also helps keep the lungs elastic. This type of atelectasis can be caused by congenital disorders such as hyaline membrane disease. Without surfactant, the alveolar walls alone cannot keep the alveoli open.


More information on atelectasis

What is atelectasis? - Atelectasis is the collapse of part or all of a lung by blockage of the air passages, or by very shallow breathing.
What causes atelectasis? - The most common cause of atelectasis is an obstruction of a large bronchus. Adhesive or congenital atelectasis results from the lack of surfactant.
What're the symptoms of atelectasis? - Symptoms and signs of atelectasis include shortness of breath and decreased chest wall expansion.
How is atelectasis diagnosed? - Atelectasis is diagnosed by a person's symptoms, the physical examination findings, and the setting in which the symptoms occurred.
What's the treatment for atelectasis? - The goal of treatment for atelectasis is to remove pulmonary (lung) secretions and re-expand the affected lung tissue.
How to prevent atelectasis? - Breathing exercises and the use of breathing devices, such as an incentive spirometer, may help prevent atelectasis.
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All information is intended for reference only. Please consult your physician for accurate medical advices and treatment. Copyright 2005,, all rights reserved. Last update: July 18, 2005