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Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jul 4, 2022.

What is atelectasis?

Atelectasis happens when the alveoli in your lungs cannot expand fully. This may cause part or all of your lung to collapse. The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide cannot take place in the alveoli, when your lung collapses. Atelectasis happens very often after surgery.

What causes atelectasis?

  • Bronchial blockage by mucus plugs, foreign bodies, or swelling due to lung disease
  • Decreased surfactant production (surfactant keeps the alveoli in your lung from collapsing when you exhale)
  • Any squeezing that does not allow full lung expansion, such as a tight bandage
  • Anything that prevents you from taking a deep breath, such as a rib fracture, obesity, or a chest or abdomen incision

What increases my risk for atelectasis?

  • General anesthesia
  • Surgery on your chest, upper abdomen, head and neck, or blood vessels
  • Not moving for long periods of time, such as while in intensive care or on bed rest
  • A chronic lung disease, such as COPD or cystic fibrosis
  • Obesity, smoking, or age older than 60
  • A health condition such as heart failure, obstructive sleep apnea, or pulmonary hypertension

What are the signs and symptoms of atelectasis?

You may not have any symptoms, or you may have any of the following:

  • Cough or wheeze
  • Difficulty breathing or feeling like you cannot get enough air
  • Chest pain
  • Blue lips and fingers
  • Severe sweating
  • Heart beats faster than it should

How is atelectasis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. He may use his fingers to tap on areas of your back and chest. If your lung has collapsed, the taps will make a different sound. You will have a chest x-ray. If the cause of your atelectasis is not known, your healthcare provider may order a bronchoscopy. The bronchoscopy will check for a tumor or foreign body blocking your airway.

How is atelectasis treated?

You may be given medicines to help thin mucus so that it is easier to cough out. You may be given medicines that dilate airways or treat infection. You will be admitted to the hospital if a large area of your lung has collapsed. You may need surgery or radiation to remove or shrink a blockage.

How can I prevent or manage atelectasis?

  • Postural drainage means getting into positions that help mucus drain. Postural drainage is sometimes used with chest percussion (gentle clapping to help move the mucus out of your lungs). Ask your healthcare provider for more information about postural drainage and chest percussion.
  • Frequent coughing can help clear mucus from your lungs.
  • Deep breathing exercises help improve your lung function and reduce your risk for atelectasis. An incentive spirometer may be used after surgery to help you breathe deeply and slowly. Ask your healthcare provider for more information on deep breathing exercises.
  • Do not smoke before surgery. Ask how long before surgery you should not smoke. It is never too late to quit. Ask your healthcare provider for more information if you need help quitting.
  • Change your position to promote lung expansion and reduce the risk for infection. Sit on the side of the bed or walk frequently after surgery as directed.
  • Drink liquids as directed to help loosen mucus. Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you.

When should I call 911?

You cough up blood continuously or more than 3 teaspoons.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your symptoms return.
  • You have a fever.
  • You cough up blood.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You are coughing up a large amount of mucus.
  • You are more tired than usual.
  • You have trouble catching your breath while you exercise or walk up stairs.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

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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 healthcare providers 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.

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