A doctor's examination and plain chest X-ray may be all that is needed to diagnose atelectasis. However, other tests may be done to confirm the diagnosis or determine the type or severity of atelectasis. They include:

  • CT scan. Since a CT is a more sensitive technique than an X-ray, it may sometimes help better detect the cause and type of atelectasis.
  • Oximetry. This simple test uses a small device placed on one of your fingers to measure your blood-oxygen level. It helps determine the severity of atelectasis.
  • Ultrasound of the thorax. This noninvasive test can help tell the difference between atelectasis, hardening and swelling of a lung due to fluid in the air sacs (lung consolidation), and pleural effusion.
  • Bronchoscopy. A flexible, lighted tube inserted down your throat allows your doctor to see what may be causing a blockage, such as a mucus plug, tumor or foreign body. This procedure may also be used to remove the blockages.


Treatment of atelectasis depends on the cause. Mild atelectasis may go away without treatment. Sometimes, medications are used to loosen and thin mucus. If the condition is due to a blockage, surgery or other treatments may be needed.

Chest physiotherapy

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

  • Performing deep-breathing exercises (incentive spirometry) and using a device to assist with deep coughing may help remove secretions and increase lung volume.
  • 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.
  • Tapping on your chest over the collapsed area to loosen mucus. This technique is called percussion. You can also use mechanical mucus-clearance devices, such as an air-pulse vibrator vest or a hand-held instrument.


Removal of airway obstructions may be done by suctioning mucus or by bronchoscopy. During bronchoscopy, the doctor gently guides a flexible tube down your throat to clear your airways.

If a tumor is causing the atelectasis, treatment may involve removal or shrinkage of the tumor with surgery, with or without other cancer therapies (chemotherapy or radiation).

Breathing treatments

In some cases, a breathing tube may be needed.

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

More Information

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.
  • Note when the symptoms began and what you were doing at the time.
  • Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements you're taking.
  • Take a family member or friend with you to your appointment, 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 treatment do you recommend?
  • What are my treatment alternatives?
  • I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
  • Are there any diet or activity restrictions?
  • Do you have 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 start having symptoms?
  • Do you always have symptoms or do they come and go?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • Have you had a fever?
  • What, if anything, makes you feel better?
  • What, if anything, makes your symptoms worse?
Sept. 05, 2018
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  2. Conde MV, et al. Overview of the management of postoperative pulmonary complications. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed July 20, 2018.
  3. Goldman L, et al., eds. Bronchiectasis, atelectasis, cysts, and localized lung disorders. In: Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2016. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed July 23, 2018.
  4. Smetana GW, et al. Strategies to reduce postoperative pulmonary complications. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed August 20, 2018.
  5. Bope ET, et al. Atelectasis. In: Conn's Current Therapy 2018. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier; 2018. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed July 23, 2018.
  6. Restrepo RD, et al. Current challenges in the recognition, prevention and treatment of perioperative pulmonary atelectasis. Expert Review of Respiratory Medicine. 2015;9:97.
  7. Stark P, et al. Atelectasis: Types and pathogenesis in adults. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed August 20, 2018.
  8. Finder JD. Atelectasis in children. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed August 20, 2018.
  9. Moua T (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Aug. 27, 2018.


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