What Are The Complications Of Atelectasis?

Atelectasis can occur in anyone and at any age. Newborns and older adults are susceptible to the condition mostly due to lack of enough surfactant. However, atelectasis can also be caused by a lung tumor, excess mucus, blocked airway due to inhaled foreign objects, and chest trauma or lung infections. Although, the main attributing cause of atelectasis is when there is not enough air inside your lungs. Your lungs are unable to expand normally due to the underlying factors, meaning your blood and body is poorly oxygenated. For this reason, your lungs can collapse.

What Are The Complications Of Atelectasis?

What Are The Complications Of Atelectasis?

As a result of developing atelectasis, there is a possibility you will experience some complications. The consequences can be immediate and short-term while others take a while to manifest and can be long-term. As a matter of fact, atelectasis can either be acute or chronic, depending on how long it takes to manifest. The common possible complications of atelectasis are:


Pneumonia is a lung infection which can either attack one or both lungs. It causes the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs to swell resulting in accumulate fluid or pus in your lung cavity. This makes it difficult to breathe as one may experience shortness of breath and chest pains. Other than that, coughing is a common symptom of pneumonia that is accompanied by phlegm. Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, fungi or viruses.


Bronchiectasis is a condition that affects the bronchial tubes of the lungs. It is characterized by permanently damaged, widened or thickened tubes. Due to this compromised situation of the bronchi, bacteria and mucus build up in your lungs leading to further complications. Bronchiectasis has no cure and complications can be fatal if left untreated. It can be caused by autoimmune diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung infections.

Hypoxemic respiratory failure

This is a respiratory failure caused by low blood oxygen levels. The common causes of hypoxemia include; lung disorders, smoking, heart problems, cystic fibrosis, and chest injuries to name a few. Low levels of oxygen in the body can prove fatal as it implies your organs aren’t receiving enough oxygen to function properly. Potential complications of hypoxemic respiratory failure are dyspnea, fast breathing, headaches, fatigue, wheezing and coughing.

Pleural effusions and empyema (pus)

When you develop atelectasis, your lungs could easily be filled with fluid or pus. Build-up fluid in the lungs is known as pleural effusion whereas build-up of pus is called pleural empyema. Pleural effusion can be caused by either leak from other organs, lung infections, and lung cancer or chest trauma. On the other hand, pleural empyema can be as a result of pneumonia or post-operative procedures of the chest.


Sepsis is an autoimmune disorder that arises when your immune system overworks while trying to fight infections. Pulmonary infections such as pneumonia can increase one’s risk of developing sepsis. It is a life-threatening situation which can be regarded as a medical emergency especially when the entire body is affected. The immune system usually releases chemicals in the bloodstream that are meant to fight the infections. These chemicals then cause body-spread inflammation that may lead to organ failure.

Post-obstructive pulmonary edema (POPE)

Finally, we have pulmonary edema, which is a potential factor complication of acute airway obstruction. There are two forms of post-obstructive pulmonary edema namely: Type I POPE and Type II POPE. The former is a result of severe upper airway obstruction while the latter is caused by surgical relief of chronic upper airway obstruction.

Risk Factors of Atelectasis

There are a few risk factors which increase your likelihood of developing atelectasis. They include;

  • Lung diseases such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, and infections such as influenza, pneumonia
  • Smoking
  • Pain or injury which makes it difficult to take deep breaths and cough e.g. rib fracture
  • Abdominal or chest surgery – exposure to general anesthesia
  • Old age for adults and premature birth for newborns
  • Weak respiratory muscles due to muscular dystrophy or spinal cord injury
  • Medication that may cause shallow breathing
  • Obesity


Disease complications are imminent in several medical cases and are often manageable. Atelectasis has several pulmonary complications, but their development depends on the degree of the condition. Presence of risk factors usually intensifies the extremity of the condition which in turn increases the risk of future complications. It is a like a progressive chain of one complication after the other. Anyways, to prevent the occurrence of further complications of atelectasis, the initial causing factors should be treated, thus improving the condition.

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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 5, 2018

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