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Pneumothorax - infants

Definition

Pneumothorax is the collection of air or gas in the space inside the chest around the lungs, which leads to a lung collapse.

This article discusses pneumothorax in infants.

Alternative Names

Pulmonary air leak

Causes

A pneumothorax occurs when some of the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in a baby's lung become overinflated and burst. This causes air to leak into the space between the lung and chest wall (pleural space).

The most common cause of pneumothorax is respiratory distress syndrome. This is a condition that occurs in babies who are born too early (premature).

  • The baby's lungs lack the slippery substance (surfactant) that helps them stay open. Therefore, the tiny air sacs are not able to expand as easily.
  • If the baby is put on a breathing machine (mechanical ventilator), there is extra pressure on the baby's lungs, which can sometimes burst the air sacs.

Meconium aspiration syndrome is another cause of pneumothorax in newborns. During birth, the baby may breathe in the first bowel movement, called meconium. This may cause breathing problems and the need for a breathing machine.

Other causes include pneumonia (infection of the lung) or pulmonary hypoplasia (underdeveloped lung tissue).

Less commonly, an otherwise healthy infant can develop an air leak when he or she takes the first few breaths after birth. This occurs because of the pressure needed to expand the lungs for the first time.

Symptoms

Many infants with pneumothorax do not have symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include:

  • Bluish skin color (cyanosis)
  • Fast breathing
  • Flaring of the nostrils
  • Grunting with breathing
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Use of other chest and abdominal muscles to aid breathing (retractions)

Exams and Tests

The nurses and doctors may have difficulty hearing breath sounds when listening to the infant's lungs with a stethoscope. The heart or lung sounds may seem as if they are coming from a different part of the chest than is normal.

Tests for pneumothorax include:

  • Chest x-ray
  • Light probe placed against the baby's chest, also known as "transillumination" (pockets of air will show up as lighter areas)

Treatment

Babies without symptoms may not need treatment. The health care team will monitor your baby's breathing, heart rate, oxygen level, and skin color. Supplemental oxygen will be provided if needed.

If your baby is having symptoms, the doctor will place a needle or thin tube called a catheter into the baby's chest to remove the air that has leaked into the chest space.

Since treatment will also depend on the lung issues that led to the pneumothorax, it may last for days to weeks.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Some air leaks will go away within a few days without treatment. Infants who have the air removed with a needle or catheter often do well after treatment if there are no other lung problems.

Possible Complications

As air builds up in the chest, it can push the heart toward the other side of the chest. This puts pressure on both the lung that hasn't collapsed and the heart. This condition is called tension pneumothorax. It is a medical emergency.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

A pneumothorax is often discovered shortly after birth. Call your health care provider if your infant has symptoms of pneumothorax.

Prevention

The health care providers in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) should watch your infant carefully for signs of an air leak.

References

Winnie GB, Lossef SV. Pneumothorax. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 405.

Edwards MO, et al. Respiratory distress of the term newborn infant. Paediatric Respiratory Reviews. March 2013;14(1): 29-37.


Review Date: 1/31/2014
Reviewed By: Kimberly G Lee, MD, MSc, IBCLC, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Neonatology, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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