Atelectasis can happen when there is an airway blockage, when pressure outside the lung keeps it from expanding, or when there is not enough surfactant for the lung to expand normally. When your lungs do not fully expand and fill with air, they may not be able to deliver enough oxygen to your blood.
Atelectasis can happen at any age and for different reasons. For example, newborns whose lungs are not fully developed may have atelectasis due to respiratory distress syndrome. Atelectasis can also happen when a tumor, excess mucus, or a piece of food blocks an airway, or because of a pneumothorax or pleural effusion.
You may be at higher risk of atelectasis if you smoke or have other conditions, including obesity, sleep apnea, or lung diseases such as asthma, COPD, or cystic fibrosis. You are also at higher risk if you recently had surgery. The medicines used to make you sleep during surgery can affect the way your lungs work, or the procedure itself can make it painful to breathe deeply. To help prevent atelectasis during and after surgery, your medical team may ask you to stop smoking and give you breathing exercises, medicines, or a breathing device such as a CPAP machine.
Atelectasis may not cause signs or symptoms if it affects only a small area of lung. If it affects a larger area of the lung, it can cause fever, shallow breathing, wheezing, or coughing. The most common test used to diagnose atelectasis is a chest X-ray. Bronchoscopy or imaging tests can confirm a diagnosis.
Atelectasis treatment can include breathing or coughing exercises, inhaled medicines, breathing devices, or surgery. Atelectasis usually gets better with time or treatment. However, if it is undiagnosed or untreated, serious complications can occur, including fluid buildup, pneumonia, and respiratory failure.
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