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Spontaneous Pneumothorax

What is a spontaneous pneumothorax?

A spontaneous pneumothorax is when part of your lung collapses. It happens if air collects in the pleural space (the space between your lungs and chest wall). The trapped air in the pleural space prevents your lung from filling with air, and the lung collapses. A spontaneous pneumothorax can happen in one or both lungs. A primary spontaneous pneumothorax occurs in a person with no known lung problems. A secondary spontaneous pneumothorax occurs in a person who has a known lung disease or medical condition.


What causes a spontaneous pneumothorax?

There is no clear cause for a spontaneous pneumothorax. It may occur when an air pocket in the lung breaks open. This allows air to leak out and become trapped in the pleural space. Air may also enter the pleural space if your lung tissue is damaged.

What increases my risk for a primary spontaneous pneumothorax?

  • Being a tall, thin male

  • Having had a spontaneous pneumothorax before

  • Scuba diving, flying, or climbing to high altitudes

  • Smoking

What increases my risk for a secondary spontaneous pneumothorax?

Ask your caregiver for more information about these and other risk factors for a secondary spontaneous pneumothorax:

  • Lung diseases and conditions: Conditions including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, and severe asthma can cause a secondary pneumothorax. Cystic fibrosis may also increase your risk for a pneumothorax. Conditions that cause abnormal tissue growth in your lungs can cause a spontaneous pneumothorax. Pulmonary fibrosis occurs with an overgrowth of tissue in the lungs and may lead to a pneumothorax.

  • Cancer: A tumor in your lung may lead to a pneumothorax.

  • Infections: Lung infections, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, may increase your risk for a pneumothorax.

  • Autoimmune disorders: Your immune system protects your body against infection and disease. When you have an autoimmune disorder, your body attacks itself instead. Autoimmune disorders that may lead to a pneumothorax include ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and sarcoidosis.

  • Catamenial: This is when a pneumothorax occurs 1 to 3 days after a woman's monthly period begins. A catamenial spontaneous pneumothorax is more common in women with endometriosis.

What are the signs and symptoms of a spontaneous pneumothorax?

You may have any of the following:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Uneven chest movement when you breathe

  • Rapid heartbeat

How is a spontaneous pneumothorax diagnosed?

Your caregiver will ask about your signs and symptoms and examine you. He will listen to your lungs. You may need any of the following tests:

  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give caregivers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.

  • Blood gases: This is also called an arterial blood gas, or ABG. Blood is taken from an artery (blood vessel) in your wrist, arm, or groin. Your blood is tested for the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in it. The results can tell caregivers how well your lungs are working.

  • Heart monitor: This is also called an ECG or EKG. Sticky pads placed on your skin record your heart's electrical activity.

  • Chest x-ray: This is a picture of the bones, lungs, and other tissues in your chest. Caregivers use chest x-rays to see if you have broken ribs. These x-rays may show your caregiver how large your pneumothorax is. Chest x-rays may also show fluid around the heart and lungs.

  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your chest and lungs. Caregivers check for a pneumothorax that did not show up on a chest x-ray. You may be given dye in your IV to help your caregivers see the images better. Tell the caregiver if you are allergic to shellfish or iodine. You may also be allergic to the dye.

  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to show pictures of your lungs on a monitor.

How is a spontaneous pneumothorax treated?

Treatment will depend on the size of your pneumothorax. If your pneumothorax is small, it may resolve on its own. The goal of treatment is to remove the air from your pleural space. Once your lung is able to fill with air, you will be able to breathe easier. You may need any of the following:

  • Medicines:

    • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.

    • Pain medicine: You may be given a prescription medicine to decrease severe pain if other pain medicines do not work. Take the medicine as directed. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your medicine.

  • Procedures:

    • Needle aspiration: During needle aspiration, a needle covered with a tube is put through your skin and into your pleural space. Your caregiver will use a syringe to pull the air out of your pleural space.

    • Chest tube: A chest tube may be placed to remove air, blood, or fluid from around your collapsed lung. This allows your lung to fill up with air when you breathe, and helps your heart beat normally. The chest tube is attached to a container to remove air and collect any blood or fluid.

    • Pleurodesis: Caregivers use chemicals, such as iodine or talc powder, to irritate the walls of your pleural space. This causes the walls of your pleural space to close together so air can no longer be trapped there.

    • Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery: Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) is surgery done to look inside your chest with a video scope. During surgery, 2 to 3 small cuts are made between your ribs. The video scope and other special instruments are inserted into these incisions to repair your lung.

    • Thoracotomy: During a thoracotomy, an incision is made in your chest to repair your lung.

What are the risks of a spontaneous pneumothorax?

  • Air may continue to enter the pleural space and you may get a tension pneumothorax. With a tension pneumothorax, the injured lung and trapped air push against your uninjured lung. A tension pneumothorax can lead to low blood pressure, decreased oxygen in your blood, and heart problems.

  • Treatments that require cuts in your skin to reach your lung may lead to an infection in the lung area. During decompression, the needle used for the procedure may injure your lung or cut a blood vessel. This can cause bleeding around the lung. Chest tubes could be painful, become kinked or clogged, or could fall out or leak. Chest tubes could also cause a lung infection, or fluid could fill the lung instead of air. Chest tubes could damage blood vessels or other organs and cause bleeding and injury.

  • Without treatment, your lungs may completely collapse. Your heart could stop working. These problems can be life-threatening.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • You hear a crackling noise or feel popping when you touch your skin.

  • You have questions about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have new or increased shortness of breath.

  • Your throat or the front of your neck is pushed to one side.

  • You are sweating and feel like you are going to pass out.

  • Your fingernails, toenails, or lips begin to turn blue.

  • You have trouble thinking clearly.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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