Pneumothorax

What is pneumothorax?

Pneumothorax is a condition in which there is air in the chest (the thorax) which is outside of the lungs. This air pushes on the lung which prevents it from being able to expand fully. Signs of this condition are sudden chest pain and often breathing problems. Sometimes a pneumothorax can occur without any particular cause, but it is most common after an injury to the chest. The symptoms often include shortness of breath and chest pain. A small pneumothorax may not need any particular treatment, but a larger pneumothorax may to have the air let out to help improve breathing. Although this condition can be life-threatening, most people recover well with treatment.

Risks

Pneumothorax is the medical term for when air enters areas of the chest (the thorax) which are outside of the lungs. This air takes up space inside the chest and presses on the outside of the lungs. This stops the lungs from being able to expand fully. Pneumothorax can occur following an injury to the chest, due to an underlying lung condition, or can happen without a particular cause. A pneumothorax after an injury can occur in people of any age. Pneumothorax due to an underlying lung condition is more common in older adults, especially people with emphysema or asthma. Pneumothorax with no particular cause is most common in tall, thin, young men, and this condition may run in families. Smokers may also be more likely to develop this condition.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of a pneumothorax are a sharp, one-sided chest pain and shortness of breath. The pain may be worse when taking a breath in. People with a small pneumothorax may only have mild symptoms. People with a large pneumothorax tend to have more severe symptoms and require emergency treatment. The symptoms of this include severe shortness of breath, blue fingers and lips, anxiety, confusion and, possibly, collapse.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis can be made based on the symptoms and by carrying out a physical examination. X-rays of the chest are often needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment

Treatment of pneumothorax depends on the size of the air collection in the chest and the severity of the symptoms. A small pneumothorax may not require any particular treatment. People with troublesome symptoms need emergency treatment. This may involve emergency treatments to give extra oxygen and an emergency procedure to remove the air from the chest. This usually happens over a period of days.

Prevention

People with lung conditions should discuss flying with their doctor, as air travel can make these people more likely to develop a pneumothorax.

Other names for pneumothorax

  • Collapsed lung