A doctor's examination and plain chest X-ray may be all that's needed to diagnose atelectasis. But other tests may be done to confirm the source of symptoms or figure out the type or severity of atelectasis.
These tests include:
- CT scan. A CT may be better than an X-ray at finding 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 in finding out how severe the atelectasis is.
- Chest ultrasound. This test uses sound waves to create detailed images of structures inside your chest. A small, hand-held device is pressed against your chest and moved as needed to capture the images. It can find the causes of atelectasis, such as pneumothorax, where air leaks into the space between the lungs and chest wall, and pleural effusion, where fluid builds up around the lungs.
- Bronchoscopy. During this test, a flexible, lighted tube is placed down your throat. It allows your doctor to see what may be causing a blockage. Possible causes include a mucus plug, tumor or foreign body. This test also may be used to take out blockages.
Treatment of atelectasis depends on the cause. Mild atelectasis may go away without treatment. Sometimes, medicines are used to loosen and thin mucus. If the condition is due to a blockage, you may need surgery or other treatments.
Chest physical therapy
Chest physical therapy, also called chest physiotherapy, is a group of airway clearance techniques. They help you breathe deeply after surgery to expand collapsed lung tissue. It's best to learn these techniques before surgery.
These techniques include:
- Doing deep-breathing exercises using a hand-held device called an incentive spirometer, followed by deep coughing to help clear your lungs. This technique can help get rid of mucus and other secretions. And it can help your lung go back to its larger size.
- Positioning your body so that your head is lower than your chest. 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 also can use mechanical mucus clearance devices, such as an air pulse vibrator vest or a hand-held instrument.
Suctioning mucus or doing a bronchoscopy can get rid of airway blockages. During bronchoscopy, the doctor gently guides a flexible tube down your throat to clear your airways.
If a tumor is causing atelectasis, treatment may involve removing or shrinking the tumor during the bronchoscopy, which may include surgery. Other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation, may or may not be needed.
In some cases, a breathing tube may be needed.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) may help some people who are too weak to cough and have low oxygen levels, also called hypoxemia, after surgery.
Preparing for your appointment
Unless you need emergency care, you're likely to first see your family doctor. But in some cases, when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred right away to a pulmonologist. This is a doctor who specializes in lung conditions.
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
What you can do
To prepare for your appointment, make a list of:
- Symptoms you're having, including any that don't seem to be related to why you scheduled the appointment.
- When the symptoms began and what you were doing at the time.
- All medicines, vitamins or supplements you're taking.
- Questions for your doctor.
Questions to ask your doctor
Ask your doctor questions such as:
- What is likely causing my symptoms or condition?
- What kinds of tests do I need?
- What treatment do you recommend?
- What are my treatment options?
- 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 have?
- 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 several 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?
Take a family member or friend with you to your appointment, if possible, to help you remember everything that is said.