Pneumothorax, otherwise known as a collapsed lung, is the collection of air in the space around the lungs. This build-up of air puts pressure on the lung, preventing the lung from expanding as much as it normally would when someone takes a breath.
A collapsed lung may result from trauma, such as a gunshot wound, knife wound, or rib fracture. In addition, certain activities may lead to a collapsed lung, such as scuba diving, smoking marijuana or tobacco, high altitude hiking, and flying.
In some cases, a collapsed lung occurs without any cause. This is referred to as a spontaneous pneumothorax. In such cases, a small area in the lung that is filled with air ruptures, and the air leaks into the space around the lung.
Tall, thin people are at an increased risk for a collapsed lung. And, lung diseases such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, COPD, tuberculosis and whooping cough also increase your risk for a collapsed lung. The most common symptoms of pneumothorax include shortness of breath and/or sharp chest pain that is made worse by a deep breath or a cough.
A larger pneumothorax will likely involve symptoms such as chest tightness, easy fatigue, rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, nasal flaring and bluish color of the skin (caused by lack of oxygen).
Some patients with a collapsed lung need extra oxygen, which helps the air around the lung be reabsorbed more quickly. With a small pneumothorax, oxygen and rest could be sufficient treatment. A healthcare provider may use a needle to pull the extra air out from around the lung so it can expand more fully.
A large pneumothorax may be treated differently. Usually a chest tube is placed between the ribs into the space around the lungs to help drain the air, thereby allowing the lung to re-expand. The chest tube can be left in place for several days. Patients usually remain in the hospital while the chest tube is in place.
In order to treat a large pneumothorax and/or to prevent future episodes, the area may need to be surgically repaired. Sometimes, a special chemical is placed into the injured area of the collapsed lung to cause a scar to form to cover the leak.