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Inhaled Chewing Gum and Resulting Atelectasis

Published: 2012/11/22 - Updated: 2021/06/26
Author: Thomas C. Weiss - Contact: Contact Details
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Synopsis: Atelectasis is a condition that may result from an a blockage of a person's airways that affects tiny air sacs referred to as Alveoli . A friend of mine fell asleep with a piece of chewing gum in his mouth and inhaled it into his lungs leading to a condition known as Atelectasis Atelectasis is a potential complication after a surgical procedure, particularly in people who have undergone abdominal or chest operations that result in related abdominal or chest pain as they breath.


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A friend of mine experiences quadriplegia and also enjoys chewing gum. Recently he fell asleep with a piece of chewing gum in his mouth and inhaled it into his lungs, leading to a condition known as, 'Atelectasis.' Unfortunately for my friend, the condition was more of an end result of a series of events caused by his accidental inhalation of the chewing gum. Let me state from the start that he is going to be alright, but a simple piece of chewing gum did cause some rather serious issues along the way.

Atelectasis is defined as the collapse of part of, or much less commonly all of a lung. Atelectasis is caused by a blockage of the air passages (bronchus or bronchioles) or by pressure on the outside of the lung. In an adult, atelectasis in a small area of the lung is usually not life threatening. The rest of the lung can make up for the collapsed area, bringing in enough oxygen for the body to function.

After he inhaled the chewing gum, he developed a lung infection because he has difficulties with coughing. He is unable to cough on his own and needs assistance with doing so. The assistance he receives with coughing is referred to as a, 'quad cough,' and helps him to cough up things such as phlegm or other things able-bodied persons have the ability to cough up on their own. Chewing gum; however, is comprised of a gum base, is rather sticky and did not come up through quad coughing.

The next step was an, 'Airways,' vest that attached to a machine that filled the vest with air and then vibrated rather vigorously. The hope with using this Airways vest was to shake the chewing gum loose enough that he could quad cough it up, avoiding the need for any further medical intervention. He was also prescribed a, 'cough assist,' machine that would force air into his lungs to help with quad coughing. Sadly, neither of these devices helped him to bring the sticky chewing gum out of his lungs.

The next form of medical intervention was a, 'bronchoscopy.' A bronchoscopy involved the insertion of a flexible tube into his bronchial tubes and lungs with the goal of physically removing the chewing gum. Fortunately, the bronchoscopy worked, although it did leave me friend with, 'Atelectasis.'

'Atelectasis,' is a collapse of a person's lung tissue and affects part of their entire lung. The condition prevents them from absorbing oxygen into healthy lung tissue. My friend was rather fortunate in that only one lobe of his lung collapsed. He was hospitalized for a rather short period of time so he could receive medical care for this condition, and then he was discharged. When I went to visit him in the hospital he was in fairly good spirits, even though it was the day before Thanksgiving.

More About Atelectasis

Atelectasis is a condition that may result from an a blockage of a person's airways that affects tiny air sacs referred to as, 'Alveoli.' A person's alveoli have very thin walls and contain a rich blood supply; they are important to the functioning of a person's lungs and their purpose is to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. When someone's airways are blocked by a foreign object, mucous, a tumor, or chewing gum their alveoli are unable to fill with air and collapse of the person's lung tissue is something that can happen in the area that is affected.

Atelectasis is a potential complication after a surgical procedure, particularly in people who have undergone abdominal or chest operations that result in related abdominal or chest pain as they breath. 'Congenital Atelectasis,' may result from a failure of a person's lungs to expand at birth. Congenital Atelectasis can be localized, or it might affect all of both of a person's lungs.

Causes and Symptoms of Atelectasis

The causes of atelectasis include insufficient attempts at respiration by a newborn, absence of surfactant - a substance that is secreted by a person's alveoli that maintains the stability of their lung tissue by reducing the surface tension of fluids that coat their lung, or a bronchial obstruction such as my friend experienced. A lack of surfactant reduces the surface area that is available for the effective exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and causes a person's lung to collapse if it is severe. Pressure on a person's lung from air or fluid can also cause atelectasis as obstruction of a person's lung air passages by thick mucus can result from lung diseases or different infections. Tumors or inhaled objects such as chewing gum can also cause obstruction of a person's airway and lead to atelectasis.

A person who has undergone an abdominal or chest surgery using general anesthesia is at risk of developing atelectasis because their breathing is many times shallow after surgery to avoid pain from a surgical incision. Any significant decrease in airflow to a person's alveoli contributes to a pooling of secretions, which can in turn cause infection. Chest injuries can cause shallow breathing, to include fractured ribs, and may cause atelectasis.

Common symptoms of atelectasis include decreased expansion of a person's chest wall and shortness of breath. If atelectasis affects only a small area of a person's lung, the symptoms are often times minimal, such as the ones my friend experienced. If the condition affects a large area of a person's lung and develops rapidly, the person's may turn blue or, 'cyanotic,' or may turn pale, experience extreme shortness of breath, and feel stabbing pains on the side that is affected. An increase in heart rate and fever are additional symptoms a person may experience if they have developed an infection due to atelectasis.

Diagnosing Atelectasis

In order to achieve a diagnosis of atelectasis, a doctor begins by recording the symptoms a person is experiencing and performing a complete physical examination. The doctor listens to the person's lungs with a stethoscope for diminished or bronchial breathing sounds. The doctor will tap on the person's chest as they listen through the stethoscope because they may be able to tell if the person's lung has already collapsed. A chest X-ray can reveal if an airless area of the person's lung exists, confirming a diagnosis of atelectasis. If an obstruction of the person's airways is something a doctor suspects a, 'Computed Tomography Scan (CT) or bronchoscopy might be performed in order to locate the cause of the blockage.

Treating Atelectasis

If the atelectasis a person experiences is caused by an obstruction of their airway, the first step in treatment is to remove the cause of the blockage. Removal of the blockage might be achieved through coughing, suctioning, or a bronchoscopy procedure. If a tumor is the cause of atelectasis a surgery might be needed to remove the blockage. Antibiotics are many times used to fight infection that often accompanies atelectasis. In some instances where long-lasting or recurrent infection or serious bleeding occurs, the section of the person's lung that is affected may unfortunately need to be surgically removed.

Where my friend is concerned, fortune has smiled upon him to a certain extent. Only a lobe of his lung collapsed, meaning the atelectasis he experienced was not as serious as it may have been. Chewing gum is something many people take for granted as a simple pleasure in life, one that is inexpensive and easily accessible. The fact is that if anyone, person with a disability or not, falls asleep with chewing gum in their mouth - they have the potential to inhale it. Inhaling chewing gum can lead to very costly things such as lung infections and medical procedures such as bronchoscopy and atelectasis.

Author Credentials:

Thomas C. Weiss is a researcher and editor for Disabled World. Thomas attended college and university courses earning a Masters, Bachelors and two Associate degrees, as well as pursing Disability Studies. As a Nursing Assistant Thomas has assisted people from a variety of racial, religious, gender, class, and age groups by providing care for people with all forms of disabilities from Multiple Sclerosis to Parkinson's; para and quadriplegia to Spina Bifida.

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Cite This Page (APA): Thomas C. Weiss. (2012, November 22). Inhaled Chewing Gum and Resulting Atelectasis. Disabled World. Retrieved October 3, 2023 from

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