Atelectasis — Causes, Symptoms & Common Treatments For Partially Or Fully Collapsed Lungs

Audrey Barton
3 min readNov 29, 2021

Atelectasis is the technical term for having a fully or partially collapsed lung — and it’s more common than you might think.

Tiny alveoli (air sacs) in our lungs can deflate and collapse, or become filled with alveolar fluid — which can cause mild to severe difficulty breathing.

There are several common causes and a variety of treatment options.

Sometimes There Are No Symptoms

While a collapsed lung will often cause difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, or make people only able to draw short, rapid breaths — sometimes there are no obvious symptoms at all.

If you suffer from other respiratory conditions that make it difficult to breathe, it could disguise the symptoms.

Or if you’re otherwise healthy and suffer only a partial collapse, it just might not be noticeable.

A Few Of The Common Causes

Mucus plug — this can occur at any time, but is most common after surgery, in children, and for people who suffer from cystic fibrosis or severe asthma attacks.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

In some cases mucus plugs may be prevented from building up through the use of an OPEP device that breaks up the mucus and helps our bodies to naturally clear it out.

Foreign bodies — inhaling food or small objects into your lungs, more commonly occurring with small children, can block the airways and cause a collapse.

Pneumothorax — in some cases air can leak into your chest cavity, outside of your lungs. This leads to increased pressure from outside of your lungs, which can force them to collapse in.

Chest injury — more common with compression injuries that cause people to avoid taking deep breaths, the short shallow breathing can cause the lungs to compress.


Treatment for a collapse will depend on the cause and the severity, but often the condition will go away with time, or with additional medication and exercise to remove the excess mucus and strengthen the lungs.

In adults, collapsed lungs occur most often after surgery.

Photo by Mockup Graphics on Unsplash

If you have compromised lungs or are concerned, talk to your doctor about breathing exercises to strengthen your lungs, or consider using an OPEP device to clear out your excess mucus.

For children, the most common cause is inhaling foreign bodies — whether that’s food, magnets, or small toys.

Children or adults who have foreign objects blocking their airways may require medical assistance or surgery to have them removed.


There are a few strategies to help prevent lungs from collapsing.

For children, the best strategy is just to watch them carefully, and make sure they’re not inhaling candies or small toys.

If you are concerned about mucus buildup you can take medication to help break it up or try an OPEP device to help your body clear it out naturally.

Photo by Nino Liverani on Unsplash

In some cases, a CPAP device may be suggested by a doctor. These devices provide gentle continuous air pressure to assist patients who may be too weak to cough without assistance.

If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one possibly having a collapsed lung, please contact your doctor immediately, or seek other medical help.