Merck Manual

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Quick Facts


(Collapsed Lung)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2021| Content last modified Apr 2021
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Two layers of thin membrane cover your lungs. The two membranes normally touch each other. But sometimes the space between the membranes, called the pleural space, fills up with air or fluid.

What is a pneumothorax?

"Pneumo-" means air, and -"thorax" is another word for chest. So a pneumothorax is a build-up of air in the pleural space. This causes part or all of your lung to collapse.

  • A pneumothorax happens when a weak area of your lung tears or your lung is injured so that air escapes into your chest

  • You may have shortness of breath and chest pain

  • Doctors can see a pneumothorax on chest x-ray or ultrasound

  • Doctors usually place a tube in your chest to drain the air

What causes a pneumothorax?

A pneumothorax is caused by a tear or injury to the membrane around your lung. This can happen from:

What are the symptoms of a pneumothorax?

Symptoms of a pneumothorax depend on how much air enters the pleural space and how much of your lung collapses. Symptoms may happen suddenly or slowly. You may have:

Usually, your body reabsorbs the air, and the pneumothorax goes away over 2 to 4 weeks.

How can doctors tell if I have a pneumothorax?

How do doctors treat a pneumothorax?

Treatment depends on how large your pneumothorax is.

If there's only a small pneumothorax, doctors may:

  • Wait to see if the air goes away on its own

For a larger pneumothorax, or if you're having trouble breathing, doctors will:

  • Give you oxygen

  • Place a small plastic tube in your chest (chest tube) to remove the air

Usually the chest tube is connected to a vacuum device to pull the air out. You'll have the chest tube for a couple days until your lung heals.

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Pleural and Mediastinal Disorders
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