What Is Collapsed Lung (Pneumothorax)?

Pneumothorax is an accumulation of air in the space between the outer edge of the lung and the inner lining of the rib cage (pleural space), resulting in partial or total collapse of the affected lung. Different types of pneumothorax (spontaneous, secondary, traumatic, and tension) are distinguished by their cause. Treatment and outcome depend upon severity.

What Causes Pneumothorax?

  • Spontaneous pneumothorax occurs when an air-filled blister known as a bleb ruptures on the surface of the lung. Blebs are believed to be congenital or hereditary in origin; smoking may be a contributing factor. Scuba diving or high altitudes may precipitate the rupture of a bleb. This type of pneumothorax is most common among tall, thin, and otherwise healthy men between the ages of 20 and 40, and recurs in about one-third of patients.
  • Secondary pneumothorax (usually more serious than spontaneous pneumothorax) occurs as a complication of some underlying lung disorder, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis, tuberculosis, and certain types of pneumonia.
  • Traumatic pneumothorax results from a direct puncture or laceration of the surface of the lung (which may occur with a stab wound, a rib fracture, or as a complication of a medical procedure) when air enters the pleural space.
  • A tension pneumothorax develops when air entering the pleural space during inhalation becomes trapped and cannot escape during exhalation.

Symptoms of Pneumothorax

  • Sudden shortness of breath (of varying degrees) and tightness in the chest
  • Chest pain, usually sudden and sharp
  • Bluish skin, bulging neck veins, and weak rapid pulse (in severe cases)
  • Grunting with breathing
  • Fast breathing
  • Nostril flaring
  • Use of other chest and abdominal muscles to foster breathing (retractions)
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Low blood pressure or hypotension
  • Mild fever
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sudden sharp pain in the chest that worsens with deep breaths or coughing
  • A distended abdomen
  • Feelings of anxiety, stress and tension
  • Fatigue

Pneumothorax Prevention

  • Don't smoke
  • Seek prompt treatment for any existing lung disorders, such as tuberculosis or asthma.

Pneumothorax Diagnosis

How to Treat Pneumothorax

  • A small pneumothorax may heal on its own; a few days of monitoring in a hospital may be advised.
  • More serious cases may require removal of air by suction through a needle or catheter. Using this procedure, the lung usually re-expands over several days.
  • Recurrent spontaneous pneumothorax may warrant installation of irritants into the pleural space to cause the surface of the lung and the inner surface of the chest wall to fuse together.
  • Surgery may be considered to repair a lung lesion causing secondary pneumothorax.

When to Call a Doctor

  • See a doctor immediately if you have symptoms.


Johns Hopkins Symptoms and Remedies: The Complete Home Medical Reference

Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Editor

Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at HealthCommunities.com

Published: 16 Sep 2011

Last Modified: 06 Nov 2014