Is Atelectasis Life Threatening?

We breathe in and out the air to supply ourselves with oxygen. Oxygen is important for the functioning of cells and is involved in various processes related to cellular metabolism. The organs which assist the human body in breathing in and out these gases are lungs. When they are filled with air, they get inflated and when the air is released, they get deflated. At times, there is a blockage in the route of the gases or there is a hole in the lungs due to which the capacity of the lungs to get inflated is partially or fully obstructed. The lungs get collapsed and the condition of the collapsed lungs is known as atelectasis. The lungs may get collapsed due to variety of reasons such as plugging of mucus, post-surgery or accident. The treatment is generally directed to remove the cause of atelectasis. The symptoms experienced by the patient suffering from this condition are falling oxygen levels in blood, fatigue, shallow breathing and pain.

Is Atelectasis Life Threatening?

Atelectasis is the condition characterized by the collapse of the lungs. However, it is different from the condition known as pneumothorax in which the air leaves the lungs and finds its way in the area between the lungs and the chest wall. In the atelectasis, the severity of the condition and the risk to life depends upon two important factors:

Severity of Lung Collapse: The life-threatening risk of the atelectasis depends upon the severity of lung collapse. Atelectasis may relate to partial or full collapse of the lungs. Thus, if the atelectasis is full which means that there is no oxygen supply to the blood, then it becomes life-threatening. The condition may also become serious when major part of lungs gets affected.

Underlying Cause: The life-threatening risk also takes in to account the reason due to which atelectasis happens. There are certain conditions which are not so serious such as post-operative atelectasis. However, certain underlying diseases, which if not treated quickly, may lead to fatal consequences. These diseases may include chest tumor or pneumonia. Further, it may also aggravate the underlying respiratory conditions such as asthma which may further complicate the situation.

Thus, life-threatening capability of atelectasis depends upon the area of lungs which is collapsed and the underlying cause of the lung collapse. Generally, the atelectasis is not life threatening but is also a condition which requires quick medical intervention.

Atelectasis Causes

Atelectasis may occur due to a variety of reasons. Following are the reasons:

Bronchial Obstruction: Bronchial obstruction is regarded as one of the most important factors in the occurrence of atelectasis. The obstruction may be due to the inflammatory mucus secretion or hemorrhagic mucus secretion.

Post-operative: Atelectasis may also occur as a post-surgical complication. This condition happens in post-surgery due to an irritation in diaphragm.

Injury: Atelectasis may also occur due to injury, whether penetrating or non-penetrating. This may be due to the paralysis of the respiratory muscles.

Infection: The cause of atelectasis may also be infection which causes a reflex nervous stimulus.

Surfactant Impairment: The surfactant impairment also causes the lungs to collapse. The surfactant is present on the inner lining of the lungs and may be impaired if the patient is too much on the mechanical ventilation. Further, this may be the cause of lung collapse in new born baby.


Following Are The Symptoms Of Atelectasis:

  • Decrease in the levels of oxygen in blood.
  • Fatigue
  • rapid heart rate and decrease in blood pressure.
  • Heavy breathing.
  • If the infection is present due to mucus deposition then the patient also experiences fever.
  • The patient may be diagnosed with arrhythmia.
  • Cough
  • Bluish color of lips and skin.


Atelectasis is a condition of partial or total lung collapse in which the capacity of the lungs to fill itself with air gets compromised. The condition may be life-threatening if the major part of the lungs gets affected. Further, the condition may also be serious if the underlying disease causing atelectasis are life-threatening such as tumor or pneumonia.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:October 3, 2018

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