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Atelectasis in Infants

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Atelectasis in Infants


Atelectasis is a collapse in part of the lungs. Normally, air passes through the airways into small sacs of the lungs. Oxygen from the air passes through these sacs into the blood. Carbon dioxide also passes from the blood to the sacs to leave the body. With atelectasis, these sacs are collapsed. Oxygen and carbon dioxide cannot pass through the collapsed sacs.

A collapse over large parts of the lungs can lead to serious problems. In infants, atelectasis may be present at birth or caused by another health problem.

Healthy Lungs.

http://services.epnet.com/getimage.aspx?imageiid=46714671AO00073.jpgAO00073.jpgNULLjpgBaby airway and lungsNULL\\filer01a\Intellect\images\AO00073.jpgNULL12NULL2004-03-043122104671_840206Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Atelectasis is not a disease. It is the result of a disease or problem in the body. It can be caused by:

  • A blockage in the airways from things like inhaled stool during birth, an inhaled object, or a mucus plug that keeps air from moving into the lung sacs
  • Lung infections that may cause fluid buildup that blocks air to the lung sacs
  • Lack of a fluid that lines the inside of the lungs and helps them work the right way (common in babies born very early)
  • Air that is not breathed deep enough into the lungs to open all sacs
  • Damage to nerve and muscles that control breathing—may prevent coughing, deep breathing, and yawning

Risk Factors

Things that raise the risk of atelectasis at birth are:

  • Inhaled meconium or amniotic fluid
  • A long or hard labor
  • Birth injury to the central nervous system

Children under three years of age are more likely to get atelectasis than older children or adults. Things that may the risk are:

  • Premature birth
  • Lung problems or infection that make it hard to cough
  • Injury to the chest wall
  • Having anesthesia
  • Inhaling a foreign object, such as a peanut or marble
  • Respiratory distress syndrome
  • Being on ventilator—air does not move into lungs in a normal pattern


Atelectasis may not have symptoms that are easy to spot.

Larger areas of atelectasis may lead to:

  • Fast breathing
  • Shallow breaths
  • Agitation
  • Coughing
  • Fewer chest movements during breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Fever
  • Blue skin


The doctor will ask about the baby's symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on the baby's breathing.

Images may be taken of the baby's chest. This can be done with:

A bronchoscopy may be done to check for an obstruction. This is an exam of the lungs with a small tube.


Treatment will be based on the cause. Oxygen or breathing support may be needed until the problem resolves. Treatment options are:


Atelectasis cannot always be prevented. These steps may lower the risk:

  • Keep small objects out of reach.
  • Manage lung conditions.
  • Avoid premature birth by having regular prenatal care, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough activity.

Removing a Blockage

Steps will be taken to remove any blockage that is causing the problem. This can be done using a tube that is passed down the throat and into the lungs. Small tools can be passed through the tube to remove an object or mucus plug.

Removing a Blockage

Steps will be taken to remove any blockage that is causing the problem. This can be done using a tube that is passed down the throat and into the lungs. Small tools can be passed through the tube to remove an object or mucus plug.

Physical Therapy

Chest therapy can be used to help move mucus out of the lungs. One option uses rhythmic tapping on the back and chest. Another option uses special positions to help move mucus out of the lungs.

Breathing Therapy

This type of therapy may include:

  • Breathing masks or treatments to help keep airways open
  • Suction to help remove fluids
  • Breathing support in babies who cannot breathe on their own


Medicines may be used to:

  • Open the airways
  • Treat the disease that caused the collapse
  • Treat an infection




  • Atelectasis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/atelectasis.
  • Mechanical ventilation. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/procedure/mechanical-ventilation.
  • Respiratory distress syndrome. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute website. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/respiratory-distress-syndrome.


  • Kari Kuenn, MD
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.