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Pneumothorax (Collapsed Lung)

Front view of male chest showing partially collapsed right lung.

A pneumothorax occurs when air fills the space between your lung and chest wall (pleural cavity). This can cause all or part of your lung to collapse. The main cause of a pneumothorax is an injury to the chest cavity that punctures the lungs. Damage may result from a stab or gunshot wound, car accident, fall, or certain surgeries. In some cases, a pneumothorax happens without an obvious cause (spontaneous). 

You're more likely to have spontaneous pneumothorax if you smoke or have a chronic lung disease, such as emphysema.

When to go to the emergency room (ER)

Serious pneumothorax can be fatal if not treated. Call 911 for a bad chest wound or any of the following symptoms:

  • Sudden, sharp chest pain that may spread to your shoulder or back

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing

  • A bluish color to the skin

  • Loss of consciousness or feeling faint with any of the above symptoms

What to expect in the ER

  • You will be examined carefully.

  • Your lungs and heart will be listened to through a stethoscope.

  • You may have X-rays or a CT scan. A CT scan combines X-rays and computer scans to provide detailed pictures of your lungs.

  • You will be given help with breathing if you need it.


  • If the pneumothorax is small, you may stay in the ER for 5 to 6 hours to see if it gets any worse. If it does not get worse, you may be sent home without treatment and told to follow up with your regular doctor.

  • If the pneumothorax needs treatment, you will be admitted to the hospital. A healthcare provider may remove the air in your pleural cavity with a needle. Or the provider may place a hollow chest tube in your chest. This tube is attached to a suction device that removes the air. In that case, you will be admitted to the hospital for a few days.

After treatment, you will be told what to do to care for yourself and when to follow up with your doctor.

Online Medical Reviewer: Fetterman, Anne, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Image reviewed by StayWell medical illustration team.
Online Medical Reviewer: Mancini, Mary, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2016
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