Can Atelectasis Lead To Pneumothorax?

Disease complications are imminent in cases of certain ailments, especially when they progress into severe stages. In this case, the simple response to whether atelectasis can lead to pneumothorax is no. However, the two are closely related and are also very different from each other. The link between atelectasis and pneumothorax is that both are pulmonary illnesses related to the collapse of a lung or a portion of it. That link is further associated with the fact that pneumothorax can lead to atelectasis, but atelectasis cannot cause pneumothorax. So, what mechanism is behind the development of atelectasis from pneumothorax and not vice versa?

Can Atelectasis Lead To Pneumothorax?

Can Atelectasis Lead To Pneumothorax?

Atelectasis refers to the collapse of a lung or part of it due to improper function of the alveoli where gaseous exchange takes place. This is often as a result of an obstruction in the air passageways or pressure on the lungs from the surrounding area. Pneumothorax also refers to the collapse of a lung, but is associated with the presence of air in the pleural cavity. Specifically, in the pleural space which is between the chest wall and lung. The build-up of air in the pleural cavity causes pressure on the lungs and it also presses on the alveoli (air sacs) inside the lungs.

The compression due to the air, in turn, leads to compression atelectasis as the alveoli collapse due to lack of enough space to expand. The lung, part of or all of it, also collapses due to the air leak in the pleural space. When the alveoli are unable to expand properly, it interferes with one’s normal breathing. In short, breathing becomes difficult and leads to a lack of enough oxygen in the lungs. Consequently, the oxygen levels in the bloodstream also decline.

Signs And Symptoms of Pneumothorax And Atelectasis

Since both pneumothorax and atelectasis conditions are associated with the collapse of a lung, there’s no huge difference in their signs and symptoms. Signs and symptoms you are likely to show include;

  • Chest pain, although in atelectasis it is not a common symptom.
  • Chest tightness.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea).
  • Shock symptoms which include increased blood pressure and temperature (fever) especially in atelectasis.
  • Patient with pneumothorax exhibit low blood pressure (hypotension).
  • Cyanosis, where there is a bluish discoloration on the skin surface on the affected side of the lung. This is usually due to lack of enough oxygen in the lung tissues.
  • Increased heartbeat rate (tachycardia).
  • In severe cases of pneumothorax, patients may have fainting episodes and experience fatigue.

Managing Atelectasis Caused By Pneumothorax

The best way of managing atelectasis caused by pneumothorax is by treating the underlying cause (pneumothorax). This can be done by using a chest tube to suction out the air trapped between the chest wall and the lung. Alternatively, a needle can be inserted in the chest cavity to remove the air. Depending on the severity of pneumothorax, further treatment options may be considered to repair the damage caused. For example, a surgical procedure to close the air leak. During the recovery stage, oxygen therapy and physiotherapy treatments are essential in improving the condition. They are also helpful in treating atelectasis as they restore proper functioning of breathing and condition of the lungs. In addition to that, one is able to take deep breaths, thus allowing oxygen to fill up in the alveoli, which can now expand properly after treatment of pneumothorax. Oxygen levels in the bloodstream also rise as respiration is restored to normality.


Atelectasis cannot lead to pneumothorax, but pneumothorax can lead to atelectasis. Pneumothorax is characterized by the presence of air in the pleural cavity, which then compresses the lungs leading to a collapse. The effect of the compression by the presence of air within the surroundings of the lung is what makes one develop atelectasis. In such a situation, the resulting condition can be fixed by managing the causative condition. That means pneumothorax will need to be treated first so as to alleviate the symptoms of atelectasis.

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Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:February 2, 2019

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