Atelectasis (Child)

Front view of infant showing respiratory system.

The lungs’ job is to get air into and out of the body. Inside the lungs, air travels through a network of branching tubes (airways) made of stretchy tissue. If something blocks these airways, or if there is too much pressure on a lung, the lung may collapse. Partial or full collapse of a lung is called atelectasis.

Atelectasis can be caused by a child swallowing a foreign object. The object then blocks the airways. Atelectasis may also be caused by a long bed rest. It may also be caused by not taking full breaths. This might be because of a broken rib, for example. It is also more likely in children with lung conditions such as cystic fibrosis.

Atelectasis is usually not life threatening in a healthy child. The condition is more serious in small children and those with other health conditions. The goal of treatment is to re-expand the lung. If a foreign object is in the lung, it is removed. Moving the child into different positions and gently tapping the chest will reinflate the lung. The child may also use a special device called an incentive spirometer that helps them breathe deeply. Pain medicines may be given to make it easier for the child to breathe deeply and cough.

Home care


The healthcare provider may prescribe medicines for the child to take at home. Follow the healthcare provider’s instructions for giving these medicines to your child.

General care

  • Allow your child time to rest as needed. Your child may resume normal activities when able.

  • For children over 1 year of age, use extra pillows to keep your child’s head and upper body upright while lying down. This may make breathing easier. Talk with your healthcare provider about how far to raise your child's head.

  • Never use pillows with a baby younger than 12 months. Also never put a baby younger than 12 months to sleep on their stomach or side. Babies younger than 12 months should sleep on a flat surface on their back. Do not use car seats, strollers, swings, baby carriers, and baby slings for sleep. If your baby falls asleep in one of these, move him or her to a flat, firm surface as soon as you can.

  • Help your child with breathing exercises as instructed by your healthcare provider.

  • If coughing is painful, have your child hold a pillow to his or her stomach to cough. This may ease the pain.

  • Help your child eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of fluids.

  • If your child was given an incentive spirometer, use it as directed.

  • Don't smoke around your child, and don’t let anyone else smoke around them either. This includes guests in your home and passengers in your car.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your child’s healthcare provider, or as advised.

When to seek medical advice

For a usually healthy child, call the healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Symptoms continue or get worse

  • A fever (see Fever and children, below)

  • Your child has other symptoms that concern you or your child isn't recovering as you think he or she should be

Call 911

Call 911 if your child has trouble breathing.

Fever and children

Always use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Never use a mercury thermometer.

For infants and toddlers, be sure to use a rectal thermometer correctly. A rectal thermometer may accidentally poke a hole in (perforate) the rectum. It may also pass on germs from the stool. Always follow the product maker’s directions for proper use. If you don’t feel comfortable taking a rectal temperature, use another method. When you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which method you used to take your child’s temperature.

Here are guidelines for fever temperature. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before 6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years old.

Infant under 3 months old:

  • Ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead (temporal artery) temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit temperature of 99°F (37.2°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child age 3 to 36 months:

  • Rectal, forehead (temporal artery), or ear temperature of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit temperature of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child of any age:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under 2 years old. Or a fever that lasts for 3 days in a child 2 years or older.

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