1. Health
Lynne Eldridge MD

What Does it Mean if Your Doctor Says You Have Atelectasis?

By October 30, 2012

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When you're diagnosed with cancer it's like starting college in a way. A full load of classes including some you never wanted to take. With lung cancer, "medical lingo" is one of those prerequisites that makes calculus pale in comparison. And one of those confusing terms is atelectasis.

In real life, atelectasis is actually more common in people who don't have lung cancer - but it's common in lung cancer too, if the number of questions I've received over the years says anything.

Atelectasis simply means the collapse of a part of (and rarely all) of the lungs. It's most common when people take shallow breaths, such as with a rib fracture, or during surgery. When the lungs collapse, the tiniest airways - the alveoli - are unable to do their job of transferring oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the blood stream.

Thankfully atelectasis can be prevented to some degree. It's the reason that nurses push you to take deep breaths and get moving as soon as possible after surgery.

If you have atelectasis, there are also things you can do beyond what your doctor recommends for treatment. One of the problems with atelectasis is that it can predispose to infections like pneumonia. As we head into the winter cold and flu season, it's a good time for us all to remember that the most important thing we can do for ourselves to prevent infections is to wash our hands carefully. And while I'm sure everyone here is saying, "that's obvious," I didn't know until medical school how to wash my hands properly to maximize my chances of avoiding infection.

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