Atelectasis is a condition of the lung that decreases the deep breathing capability of a person. The entire lung, or a part of it, becomes airless and collapses. Atelectasis is not life-threatening to adults, because normally, only a small part of the lung is affected by it. But in children below 10 years of age, the condition may be critical as their bronchial tubes are already very narrow. A large part of the lung affected by atelectasis, may even result in lung damage.
The basic reason for atelectasis is the blockage of air passages to a certain part of the lung. What causes such blockage? The airway passage could be obstructed by a foreign body or a plug of mucus. Tumors and swollen lymph nodes can also count as objects that block airway passages. In some cases, the airway passage gets compressed and becomes smaller in diameter, making air passage difficult. Asthma, small chest walls or some neuromuscular disease, can cause the airway to compress, indirectly causing atelectasis.
Surgery can also render a person, vulnerable to this condition, due to anesthesia administered during the operation as it compresses the lung tissues of the patient. Atelectasis may even result from neurological disorders and chest deformities. People who have met with accidents, are often diagnosed to be suffering from atelectasis, since the lung may get punctured during the accident. Smokers and COPD patients are also prone to this disease.
If atelectasis involves just a small number of alveoli, then the symptoms may not even be detectable, but if it grows rapidly, then it may cause serious shortness of breath. The level of oxygen saturation in people suffering from this disorder is also less. The loss of deep breathing also causes the heartbeat rate to increase. Cough, fever and pleural effusion are some other significant symptoms of a patient suffering from atelectasis. A rare symptom, mostly noted in cases of people suffering from an acute condition of atelectasis, is a bluish skin. This happens because of reduced oxygen levels in the skin. If atelectasis is not treated for a prolonged period of time, then it may result in lung infection.
The first step to the treatment of atelectasis is diagnosing the problem. It is generally done through a chest X-ray. To confirm the diagnosis, the X-Ray may be followed by a bronchoscopy. The common method of treatment consists of suctioning the airway passage by a health care practitioner. If atelectasis has been caused because of a tumor, then the tumor needs to be surgically removed. In certain cases, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and laser therapy may also be used to remove the tumor. If atelectasis has been caused because of an infection in the wind pipe, then an artificial wind pipe, regulated by a mechanical ventilator may be inserted. The other common methods of treatments are deep breathing exercises and postural drainage. In the process of postural drainage, the patient is made to cough out the obstruction. Another simple but yet effective method of treatment is positioning the patient on the unaffected side of the lung, so that the affected side can again re-expand.
Atelectasis cannot be exactly termed as a disease. It can rather be classified as a secondary lung condition that can give rise to other serious lung problems diseases. No doubt, if all the alveoli in the lung have been affected, then it can cause a very severe health problem. Also, if a small part of the lung is affected by atelectasis and it continues to remain untreated, then the alveoli may collapse, which would again result in a serious lung infection. A bacterial infection is common in any person suffering from atelectasis and hence anti-bacterial drugs are prescribed in almost all cases.