Diagnosis

To diagnose atelectasis and determine the underlying cause, your doctor may order tests, including:

  • Chest X-ray. A chest X-ray usually can diagnose atelectasis.  Occasionally, a foreign body, a common cause of obstructive atelectasis in children and adults, may be seen on this type of imaging.
  • CT scan. CT is more sensitive than plain X-ray in detecting atelectasis because it can measure lung volumes in all or part of a lung. A CT scan can also help determine whether a tumor may have caused your lung to collapse — something that may not show up on a regular X-ray.
  • Oximetry. This simple test uses a small device placed on one of your fingers to measure the oxygen saturation in your blood.
  • Bronchoscopy. A flexible, lighted tube threaded down your throat enables your doctor to see and possibly remove, at least partially, obstructions in your airway, such as a mucus plug, tumor or foreign body.

Treatment

Treatment of atelectasis depends on the cause. Atelectasis of a small area of your lung may subside without treatment. If there's an underlying condition, such as a tumor, treatment may involve removal or shrinkage of the tumor with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.

Chest physiotherapy

Techniques that help people breathe deeply after surgery to re-expand collapsed lung tissue are very important. These techniques are best learned before surgery. They include:

  • Coughing.
  • Clapping (percussion) on your chest over the collapsed area to loosen mucus. You can also use mechanical mucus-clearance devices, such as an air-pulse vibrator vest or a hand-held instrument.
  • Performing deep-breathing exercises (incentive spirometry) and using a device to assist with deep coughing may be helpful.
  • Positioning your body so that your head is lower than your chest (postural drainage). This allows mucus to drain better from the bottom of your lungs.

Supplemental oxygen can help relieve shortness of breath.

Surgical or other procedures

Your doctor may suggest removal of airway obstructions, which may be done by suctioning mucus or by bronchoscopy. Bronchoscopy uses a flexible tube threaded down your throat to clear your airways.

Use of continuous positive pressure may be helpful in some people who are too weak to cough and have low oxygen levels (hypoxemia) after surgery.

Preparing for your appointment

Unless you require emergency care, you're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to a lung specialist (pulmonologist).

Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.

What you can do

  • Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
  • Recall when symptoms began and what you were doing at the time. Ask young children in a nonthreatening way about things they have put in their mouths.
  • Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements you're taking. Some medications, such as antihistamines, can make your secretions thicker and more difficult to cough out.
  • Bring a sample of your sputum in a small container.
  • Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember everything that is said.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What is likely causing my symptoms or condition?
  • What kinds of tests do I need?
  • What course of action do you recommend?
  • What are the alternatives to the approach you're suggesting?
  • I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
  • Are there any restrictions that I need to follow?
  • Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home with me? What websites do you recommend?

Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment if you don't understand something or need more information.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:

  • When did you begin experiencing symptoms?
  • Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • Have you had a fever?
  • What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
June 11, 2015
References
  1. Duggana M, et al. Atelectasis in the perioperative patient. Current Opinions in Anaesthesiology. 2007;20:37.
  2. Conde MV, et al. Overview of the management of postoperative pulmonary complications. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed April 3, 2015.
  3. Goldman L, et al. Bronchiectasis, atelectasis, cysts, and localized lung disorders. In: Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2012. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed April 3, 2015.
  4. Smetana GW, et al. Strategies to reduce postoperative pulmonary complications. http://www.uptodate.com/home.  Accessed April 3, 2015.
  5. AskMayoExpert. Perioperative medicine-pulmonary management. Rochester, Minn.: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2014.
  6. What is atelectasis? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/atl#. Accessed April 3, 2015.
  7. Stark P, et al. Atelectasis: Types and pathogenesis in adults. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed April 3, 2015.
  8. Finder JD. Atelectasis in children. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed April 3, 2015.
  9. Questions are the answer: Do you know the right questions to ask? Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. www.ahrq.gov/questionsaretheanswer. Accessed May 28, 2015.
  10. Ferri FF. Atelectasis. In: Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2015: 5 Books in 1. Philadelphia, Pa.: Mosby Elsevier; 2015. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed May 28, 2015.
  11. Bronchiectasis and atelectasis. Merck Manual Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pulmonary-disorders/bronchiectasis-and-atelectasis/atelectasis. Accessed May 29, 2015.