1 What is Atelectasis?

Atelectasis is a condition in which one or more lobes of lungs collapse or fail to inflate fully.

It is a usual respiratory complication after surgery. It is also seen as a complication of other medical conditions like

If only a small part of the lung is involved, it may not cause any specific signs or symptoms. When oxygen levels are low due to atelectasis, it results in shortness of breath.

Diagnosis is done through x-ray. Treatment of the condition is based on the cause and severity of collapse.  

2 Symptoms

Shortness of breath is the most common symptom of atelectasis.

Severity of this symptom depend on the extent of collapse and how rapidly it develops.

If a large area of the lungs is affected, it may result in severe shortness of breath.

Atelectasis may also cause an increase in heartrate and breath rate.

At lower levels of oxygen in blood the skin develops a bluish color, a condition called cyanosis.

Symptoms may also depend on the cause of the condition. Rapid, shallow breathing, and cough are also symptoms of atelectasis. 

3 Causes

Obstruction of airways and external pressure on the lungs are the main causes of atelectasis.

Anesthesia changes the pattern of breathing and also the absorption of gases in lungs. These conditions result in collapse of air sacs in the lungs.

Some of the possible causes of obstructive atelectasis are

Mucus plug

Mucus buildup in the airways due to respiratory illness or surgery cause atelectasis.

Foreign body

Inhalation of small objects like peanuts into the lungs, particularly in children, often result in collapse of lungs

Narrowing of airways

Constriction of airways due to chronic conditions like fungal infections, and tuberculosis may also lead to atelectasis.


Presence of tumor in airways may lead to collapse of one or more parts of the lungs.

Blood clot

Bleeding into the lungs may result in clot, leading to collapse.

Non-obstructive atelectasis may be caused by

  • Injury to chest cause compression of lungs leading to atelectasis
  • Pleural effusion or accumulation of fluid in lungs is another cause of this condition
  • Pneumonia is also a temporary cause of atelectasis
  • Pneumothorax is a condition in which air is present between the lungs and the wall of the chest, and may cause lung to collapse
  • Scarring in the lung tissue can cause minor atelectasis

Major risk factors of atelectasis include

  • Impaired swallowing
  • Lung diseases
  • Premature birth
  • Shallow breathing caused by medications or rib injuries
  • Weakness of respiratory muscles
  • Recent general anesthesia

4 Making a Diagnosis

Some common tests used in the diagnosis of atelectasis are x-ray, CT scan, oximetry, and bronchoscopy.

Chest x-ray provides a detailed picture of obstruction in the lungs and the also changes in the structure of lungs.

CT scan is useful in measuring the lung volumes. It helps to detect atelectasis due to various causes including tumor, which may not show up in chest x-ray.

Oximetry is a technique that measures the oxygen saturation in blood.

Bronchoscopy helps in both diagnosis and treatment of obstruction in the airways. In this procedure a small tube is inserted into the throat to see and possibly remove the obstructions like mucus plug or a foreign body. 

5 Treatment

Treatment of atelectasis is based on the cause of the condition.

Atelectasis caused by underlying condition resolves by treating the disease.

Minor cases of atelectasis may resolve without any specific treatment.

Chest physiotherapy helps to expand the collapsed lungs and to breathe deeply. This includes simple steps like

  • coughing,
  • beating or percussion on the chest to loosen the mucus buildup,
  • deep-breathing exercises,
  • lying with head at a lower position than chest.

Shortness of breath is alleviated by supplementing oxygen. Surgery is recommended to remove airway obstructions.

Continuous positive pressure is another method to supplement oxygen in patients who are weak and have low oxygen levels. 

6 Prevention

Avoiding the risk factors helps to prevent atelectasis.

Small objects should be kept away from the reach of children to reduce the risk of obstructive atelectasis.

Surgery is another major cause of this condition.

Taking adequate precautions to prevent atelectasis is important prior to the surgical procedure. 

7 Alternative and Homeopathic Remedies

Some alternative and homeopathic remedies for controlling symptoms of atelectasis are:

  • Eucalyptus oil,
  • sesame oil,
  • ginger,
  • onion,
  • tomato

Breathing exercises help to clean the airways and to strengthen the muscles surrounding the air passage.

Neti with warm water and salt helps to clear the toxins and the airways, making breathing easier.

Antimonium tartaricum and hyoscyamus niger are indicated in the homeopathic treatment of this condition. 

8 Lifestyle and Coping

Learn more about your condition and follow your doctor's instructions to cope with atelectasis.

Inhalation of eucalyptus oil and camphor relieves some of the symptoms of this condition.

Respiratory therapist may help in keeping the airways free of phlegm. 

9 Risk and Complications

There are several risks and complications associated with Atelectasis.

Atelectasis may lead to

  • low oxygen levels in blood,
  • pneumonia,
  • respiratory failure.

Loss of a large part of the lungs may lead to respiratory failure.