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collapsing lung

Collapsed Lungs (Pneumothorax)

One of the most terrifying experiences that I have endured, as an asthmatic, was a collapsed lung. A collapsed lung or, ‘pneumothorax’ is something that we are more at risk of as asthmatics, but it’s not often talked about. I never knew the symptoms of a collapsing lung or what it would feel like because I had never been taught in any conventional way. I learned about pneumothorax, instead, after an unfortunate experience. This article will share some of the knowledge I learned since my experience, hopefully helping you to understand more as well.

Risks and causes

The risk of getting a collapsed lung can be increased under some circumstances. One thing that creates an increased underlying risk is lung disease, like asthma and COPD. On top of these respiratory illnesses, certain types of pneumothorax can be genetically predisposed as well. External factors, like smoking and mechanically assisted respiration, can also increase the chances of experiencing a pneumothorax episode. In addition, once a collapse of a lung occurs, it increases the chances for future complications.

The causes of a collapsed lung are similar to the risks. Lung disease can be a cause for a couple reasons; damage to lung tissue can be a trigger, while mechanical ventilation (if relevant) can imbalance air-pressure in the chest. Other causes can be chest injury or the rupturing of air blisters (blebs) in the lung, often by coughing.

Symptoms of a collapsed lung

Sometimes as an asthmatic, we have a chronic pain associated with our lungs and difficulty breathing for extended periods. That being said, here are some symptoms of a collapsing lung to look out for:

  • Sharp and stabbing pain on one side of the chest
    • If that pain increases as you try to inhale
  • Bluing skin, especially at the lips, indicating low oxygen absorption
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Tightening of chest
  • Fatigue

What does a collapsed lung feel like?

It is difficult to explain the feelings of a collapsed lung from a clinical point of view. Instead, I will briefly share my experience.

After lots of stress and long nights, I was sick with bronchitis as final exams were coming to an end. My asthma was flared from all the coughing, of course. After I submitted a lengthy research paper, my parents asked if I felt well enough to celebrate the resolution of my semester. I was not feeling well but thought, “why not, just a bit.”  We went to the neighborhood pub where my girlfriend at the time worked and she brought me a congratulatory beer, a kind gesture.

About halfway through the beer, my consistent cough changed and I felt the sharp pain in my right back ribs. That pain quickly worked its way around my lung and with each repetitive cough, the lung became harder to inflate and more painful to inhale. Out of embarrassment of my constant cough, I went to the restroom where my lung seized and would not inflate. I stumbled back to the table and my parents knew right away that this was serious.

I was rushed to the hospital as I gasped for air in the back seat, trying to hold on to consciousness. Albuterol from my rescue would do nothing, at this point, because my lung would not inflate at all. As we pulled into the hospital I felt the belt cinched around my lung slowly release and I began to re-inflate my right lung. I was emitted to the ER and after 6 or 7 hours of breathing treatments, I was allowed to leave.

Physiological meaning of “collapsed lung”

I was told that I suffered from a collapsed right lung. The first thought that crossed my mind was that my lung broke off and crumbled away. Then, of course, I realized how ridiculous that was, but still wanted to understand what happened inside my body. So I looked it up!

When a lung “collapses” or when pneumothorax occurs what is happening is that there is air trapped outside your lung, causing pressure that keeps it from inflating. In my case, the violent coughing from my bronchitis probably ruptured some blebs that had formed on my lung. This probably caused just a section of my lung to collapse, rather than it collapsing entirely.

Treatment for a collapsed lung

Treatment can vary from the severity of the collapse and the overall health of the individual. In my case, because it was not a severe collapse, I was observed closely to make sure that my lung would not collapse again.

In other, more severe, cases, needle aspiration or chest tube valves might be used to reduce the pressure on the lung. The most severe cases will require surgery to seal the air leak into the chest cavity.

My hopes moving forward

My experience with a collapsed lung was unexpected and I knew nothing about pneumothorax before the event; making it a terrifying experience. In my experience, fear comes from a lack of understanding and unfamiliarity.

I hope that this article helped to demystify collapsed lungs and that no one else comes to understand what a collapsed lung feels like, personally. Pneumothorax is not something to be fearful of, but something that should be known as a possibility.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Mayo Clinic. Pneumothorax. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pneumothorax/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350372. Accesed September 17 2019.

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