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Collapsed Lung After a Car Accident: Symptoms and Treatment

A woman with a collapsed lung in a hospital bed following a car accident.

The chest is the largest part of the human body, therefore it is more likely to take the brunt of the impact and damage in a wreck.

The lungs provide a critical service to the body. They intake air every second of every day, replenishing oxygen into the bloodstream, which is used by every cell in the body.

When trauma interrupts this vital function, it puts a person’s life and wellbeing in jeopardy.

If you or a loved one suffered a traumatic injury to the lungs or chest during an accident, we recommend you contact a personal injury attorney to discuss your options before speaking with the insurance company.

Collapsed Lung (Pneumothorax)

A collapsed lung happens when air escapes through abnormal means. The air fills the space between the lung and chest wall (pleural space) inside the body. Air in the pleural space creates a buildup of pressure, causing the lung to partially or fully deflate.

Pneumothorax is the medical name for this condition.

Pneumothorax diagram with collapsed lung and healthy lung illustration.

What are the symptoms of a traumatic pneumothorax?

Indications that a lung has collapsed can vary in severity. Adrenaline and fatigue can mask symptoms. Warning signs of a collapsed lung after a traumatic accident may include:

  • Chest pain - worsens with deep breaths or coughing
  • Coughing
  • Cyanosis - bluish-purple coloring around the nails, lips, gums or eyes, indicating a decrease in oxygen production
  • Feeling sleepy or confused
  • Fever
  • Lightheadedness or feeling faint
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Respiratory distress
  • Shortness of breath - may cause nasal flaring when straining to breathe
  • Unconsciousness

Get emergency medical help immediately if you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms. In some situations, symptoms may develop gradually 24 to 48 hours after an accident.

How serious is a collapsed lung?

The seriousness of an injury should always be determined by a medical professional. They will be able to tell you how much of your lung has collapsed and what kind of treatment is needed.

A small pneumothorax may go away on its own over time. You may need oxygen treatment and rest. In some cases, the doctor may need to insert a needle into the chest (thoracentesis) to let the air stuck around the lungs escape and relieve the pressure.

A large pneumothorax may require a chest tube to be placed between the ribs to help drain the air and allow the lungs to re-expand. The chest tube may be left in for several days, which will require a stay in the hospital. A small chest tube or flutter valve can be worn home; you’ll need to return to the hospital later to have the tube or valve removed.

A severe collapsed lung is an incredibly serious condition that can rapidly cascade into other issues if not addressed quickly. Lack of oxygen long-term can cause internal organ damage and reduce cognitive function in the brain.

Ultimately, a person can die from a collapsed lung due to a lack of oxygen, organ failure, and infections, especially if other injuries are present.

How is a collapsed lung diagnosed?

One of the first things a nurse or doctor checks is pulse and breathing. Lung injuries are often detected quickly after a traumatic accident.

After checking your vital signs, the doctor may order a chest X-ray. This helps them evaluate how much fluid is in the lungs and if there are any broken ribs. A CT scan may also be needed for a clearer look at the lungs and heart.

A punctured lung is more obvious. It will require immediate surgical care to patch up the wound to keep air from leaking.

What about pulmonary contusions?

A pulmonary contusion is the medical term for a bruised lung. The condition often occurs due to blunt chest trauma such as in car accidents, shock waves from penetrating chest injuries, or explosions.

It’s another type of traumatic lung injury that shares similar symptoms to a collapsed lung, such as reduced oxygen flow, but it is not the same.

Pulmonary contusions are the most commonly identified lung injuries in blunt chest trauma cases, with a mortality rate of 10 to 25%. Any chest trauma (blunt, penetrating, or a combination of both) can cause pulmonary contusion. The damage can contribute to respiratory failure, internal organ damage, and death.

How is a collapsed lung repaired?

Treatment will depend on the size and severity of the pneumothorax. Treatment may include:

  • Observation: If the pneumothorax is minor, your provider may watch for signs of heart or breathing issues.
  • Oxygen therapy: An oxygen mask or cannula may need to be worn while healing.
  • Thoracentesis: A needle is inserted between your ribs to release the air in your chest.
  • Chest tube drainage: A large pneumothorax may require a tube inserted in the chest for a few days to reduce the amount of air in the pleural space. As the air drains, the lung is able to expand and heal.
  • Chemical pleurodesis: To prevent the lungs from collapsing in the future, a surgeon makes a cut and inserts a tube. Chemicals such as doxycycline or talcum powder help reattach your lung to the chest cavity.
  • Surgery: Surgical repair may be needed if you do not respond to other treatment methods, there is persistent air leakage from the chest tube, the lung does not expand after chest tube insertion, recurrent collapses, pneumothorax in both lungs, or there are various traumatic lung injuries.

Collapsed Lung Recovery Time

Treatment time varies based on the severity of the lung and chest injury. For a collapsed lung, it can take a few days to two weeks to heal as the body reabsorbs the extra air around the lung, allowing it to inflate.

Heal time may be extended if there are other traumatic injuries in addition to the collapsed lung as is usually the case after a severe car accident.

The lungs will need critical support while they heal. Your organs require oxygen to work. You may receive additional oxygen through a face mask or a nasal breathing tube called a cannula. Sometimes a breathing machine will be needed in order to force air into the lungs and push fluid out.

Various medications may be given to treat pain, infections, clots, or gastric reflux. If you require a breathing machine, the doctor may give you drugs to help reduce restlessness and anxiety.

Weakness is often an issue after treating a lung injury. Breathing exercises, avoiding alcohol and smoking/vaping, and staying up to date on vaccinations for the flu and Covid can help prevent long-term complications.

Complications After a Collapsed Lung

In some cases, complications arise. Collapsed lungs may result in pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), or respiratory failure. Multiple severe injuries make developing ARDS or an infection more likely. The victim is also at risk of the lung collapsing again in the future.

Compensation for a Collapsed Lung After a Crash

Get all of the medical care and full compensation you need to recover after a lung injury.

A collapsed lung and other lung injuries can be devastating. The effects can follow a victim for the rest of their life.

If your lung injury was caused by a negligent driver in a crash, you may have a personal injury case. It’s vital to speak to a car accident lawyer in order to protect your rights and fight for fair compensation from the insurance company.

Call Gary Martin Hays & Associates anytime or set up a free consultation with our Atlanta personal injury lawyers today.

Categories: Car Accident Posts
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