What is a Pneumothorax?

The laziest and simplest answer I could give you is a "collapsed lung", but what does that mean exactly?  

Essentially, surrounding the lung tissue is a thin vacuous space called the pleural cavity, or pleural space.   It is basically a vacuum that exerts negative pressure on the lung.  If this space is punctured, air or fluid may leak into the pleural cavity.  This unwelcome air or fluid pushes against the outside of your lung.  Due to the loss of negative pressure and introduction of new positive pressure by air or fluid, the lung can no longer maintain its normal physiological form and collapses.  Hence, collapsed lung.  

Illustration depicting a collapsed lung or Pneumothorax
Credit: Blausen.com staff. "Blausen gallery 2014". Wikiversity Journal of Medicine. DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 20018762.

Causes of Pneumothorax

There are two types of pneumothoraces:  primary and secondary. Secondary, or complicated, pneumothorax can be caused by a blunt or penetrating chest wound, a surgery gone wrong, or damage from underlying lung disease.  Some examples of blunt or penetrating chest wounds include car crashes, physical assaults, and medical procedures that involve a big needle in the chest.  

Pneumothoraces that occur randomly without any sort of incident or trauma, is called a primary pneumothorax or, more commonly, a spontaneous pneumothorax.  Although these are less common, they are equally as serious if not more so than secondary pneumothoraces.  

Risk Factors

Your sex.  In general, men are much more likely to have a pneumothorax than women.  Sorry men.

Smoking.  If you smoke, please stop!  There are so many resources and products to help you quit smoking.  

Age. In general, there is a positive relationship between age and risk of pneumothorax, but spontaneous pneumothoraces occur predominantly in individuals between 20 and 40 years old. This is especially evident for very tall, underweight males. 

Genetics.   Risk of certain types of pneumothoraces increases if it runs in the family.  

Lung disease.  Having some sort of lung disease, especially chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), makes collapsed lung significantly more likely.

Mechanical ventilation.  People who use mechanical ventilation to assist their breathing are at higher risk of developing pneumothorax.

A history of pneumothorax.  Anyone who has had one pneumothorax is more at risk of having another.  


The most common symptoms of pneumothorax include sudden, sharp chest pain on the side of the collapsed lung and dyspnea, or shortness of breath.  Other signs include hypoxemia, or decreased blood-oxygen levels, cyanosis, or blue discoloration of the skin, and confusion.  Of course all of these range from mild to severe, depending on how much of the lung is collapsed.  Severe pneumothorax may even result in a coma.  If you experience severe chest pain or difficulty breathing, get immediate emergency care.


Usually, pneumothoraces are diagnosed through a physical exam and a chest X-ray.  Sometimes, computerized tomography (CT) scan may be needed to provide a more detailed image and help plan your treatment.  CT scanners essentially combine X-ray images to produce a cross-sectional view of internal structures.


Some minor pneumothoraces may actually heal on their own; however, more serious cases are treated using an invasive procedure called a thoracentesis, or pleural tap.  Basically, a doctor sticks a needle on the affected side and sucks the fluid and air from the pleural space. 

Thoracentesis Medical Animation

This is a great animation.  I wanted to spare you the blood and guts involved in the real procedure.  However, if you have a strong stomach, there are plenty of live procedures to check out on YouTube.  


Congratulations!  If you read this article in its entirety, you know more about pneumothoraces than 99.9% of people on this planet.  I just made that number up but I bet its true. 

WARNING:  This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor.  InfoBarrel and I disclaim any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

Be careful out there!