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Pneumothorax makes breathing difficult

Pneumothorax makes breathing difficult
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3-minute read

A pneumothorax is the medical term for what is commonly known as a collapsed lung. It’s reasonably common and has many different causes.

If you have a pneumothorax and you feel it is getting harder to breathe, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

What is pneumothorax?

A pneumothorax occurs when air leaks into the space between the lung and chest wall. This air pushes on the lung which makes it collapse. In most cases, only some of the lung collapses.

Symptoms of pneumothorax

The most common symptom of pneumothorax is a sudden, sharp stabbing pain on one side of the chest, made worse by breathing in.

If you have a pneumothorax, you might also have breathing problems. Other symptoms will depend on the cause.

If you want to find out more about your symptoms, use our symptom checker.

Types of pneumothorax

There are different types of pneumothorax.

  • Primary spontaneous pneumothorax (PSP): this type of pneumothorax is the most common, has no known cause and develops in otherwise healthy people. It is thought to be caused by a tiny tear of an outer part of the lung. PSP is more common in tall people and mainly affects healthy young adults without lung disease.
  • Secondary spontaneous pneumothorax (SSP): SSP develops as a complication of existing lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)pneumonia, tuberculosis, sarcoidosis or cystic fibrosis. The lung disease weakens the edge of the lung in some way, making the lung more likely to tear and cause air to escape.
  • Traumatic pneumothorax: this type of pneumothorax is caused by an incident such as a car accident, broken ribs or a stab wound.
  • Iatrogenic pneumothorax: this is a pneumothorax that occurs as a result of mechanical ventilation, which causes an imbalance in the air pressure around the lungs.
  • Tension pneumothorax: this is a pneumothorax (of any type) that leads to the heart and lungs not working properly. It is a medical emergency.

Diagnosis of pneumothorax

A chest x-ray is used to diagnose a pneumothorax, though a CT scan is sometimes used.

Treatment of pneumothorax

Treatment will be guided by the type of pneumothorax and your symptoms, not by the size of the pneumothorax alone.

If you don’t have any symptoms, and the pneumothorax is small, it might clear up on its own. You’ll probably have a repeat X-ray to check that it has cleared up. You might need medication if you’re in pain.

If you are significantly breathless, you’ll need treatment to have the trapped air removed. This is called aspiration and involves inserting a thin tube into the chest wall (using a local anaesthetic to numb the skin). A large syringe is then attached to the thin tube, which sucks out the air from inside the chest wall. This is repeated until the pneumothorax has gone.

If you have a pneumothorax, it might be too dangerous to fly in an aeroplane. Before you travel, you will need clearance from your doctor. You should never go diving if you’ve had a pneumothorax.

Prevention of pneumothorax

If you have had a spontaneous pneumothorax (PSP or SSP) previously, you might need treatment to prevent it happening again. It’s a good idea to talk to a lung specialist to discuss your treatment and prevention options.

Quitting smoking can reduce your risk of pneumothorax.

Last reviewed: January 2017

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