What is Pneumothorax?

Pneumothorax: A Complication of COPD

Photo Courtesy of A.D.A.M.

Pneumothorax is defined as the accumulation of air or gas in the space between the lung and the chest wall. Also known as a collapsed lung, pneumothorax occurs when a hole develops in the lung that allows air to escape in the space around the lung, causing the lung to partially or completely collapse.

People who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, are at greater risk for pneumothorax because the structure of their lungs is weak and vulnerable to the spontaneous development of these types of holes.

What Causes Pneumothorax?

Pneumothorax can be caused by a number of diseases and conditions. In addition to COPD, other illnesses such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, tuberculosis, whooping cough can result in pneumothorax.

It can be caused by an injury to the lung, such as a gunshot or knife wound to the chest, a rib fracture, or certain medical procedures. In some cases, air pressure changes from scuba diving or traveling to a high altitude can result in air blisters that can break open causing a collapsed lung.

Sometimes, however, the cause of the pneumothorax may be undetermined. There is no way to prevent a pneumothorax but you can reduce your risk by not smoking.

What Are The Symptoms of Pneumothorax?

Symptoms of pneumothorax may develop during rest, sleep, or while awake and include sudden, sharp chest pain that gets worse by coughing or a taking a deep breath, dyspnea, chest tightness, fatigability, rapid heart rate (tachycardia) and cyanosis caused by lack of oxygen.

Other symptoms that may occur include nasal flaring, anxiety or low blood pressure (hypotension).

If you develop any symptoms of pneumothorax, especially if you have had the condition in the past, contact your doctor.

How is Pneumothorax Diagnosed?

Your doctor may determine you have pneumothorax during a physical examination by listening through a stethoscope and identifying decreased or absent breath sounds on the affected side of the lung.

In addition, the chest wall, which normally rises equally on both sides upon inhalation, may show an inability to rise on the affected side.

Tests that support a diagnosis of pneumothorax include chest x-ray and arterial blood gases (ABG).

How is Pneumothorax Treated?

In some cases, smaller pneumothoraces go away on their own. However, a large pneumothorax will require hospitalization.

To treat a pneumothorax, a chest tube must be inserted between the ribs into the space between the lung and the chest wall to help remove the air and reinflate the lung. The chest tube stays in place for several days, while the patient recovers in the hospital. In rare cases, surgery is required to prevent future occurrences.

The odds of having another pneumothorax if you have already had one is up to 50%. Once treatment has been successful, there are usually no long-term complications.


Collapsed lung (pneumothorax). U.S. National Library of Medicine website. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000087.htm. Updated April 13, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2016.

A.D.A.M. http://adam.about.net/encyclopedia/infectiousdiseases/Pneumothorax.htm

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