Thoracic Surgery

Blebs, Bullae and Spontaneous Pneumothorax

There are multiple classifications of pneumothoraces – primary, secondary, iatrogenic, traumatic, tension etc.  This article is a limited overview of the most common type(s) of pneumothorax, and methods of treatment.

What are blebs? 

The lung is made up of lung tissue itself (consisting of alveoli, bronchi and bronchioles) and a thin, membranous covering called the pleura.  This covering serves to prevent inhaled air from travelling from the lung to the area inside the thoracic cavity.  ‘Blebs’ are blister-like air pockets that form on the surface of the lung.  Bulla (or Bullae for pleural) is the term used for air-filled cavities within the lung tissue.

Who gets/ who has blebs and/or bullae?

Blebs and bullae may be related to an underlying disease process such as emphysema / chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but they (blebs in particular) may also be found in young, healthy people with no other medical issues.  Indeed, the ‘classic’ scenario for a primary spontaneous pneumothorax is a young adult male (18 – 20’s), tall and thin in appearance and no other known medical history who presents with complaints of shortness of breath or dyspnea.

Smoking, and smoking cannabis have been implicated in the development of spontaneous pneumothorax in young (otherwise healthy) patients.

Bullae, or air pockets within the lung tissue are more commonly associated with chronic disease processes such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema).  It can be also part of the clinical picture in cystic fibrosis and other lung diseases.

How do blebs cause a pneumothorax?

When these blebs rupture or ‘pop’ inhaled air is able to travel from the airways to the thoracic cavity, creating a pneumothorax or lung collapse.

The symptoms of a pneumothorax depend on the amount of lung collapse and the baseline respiratory status of the patient.   In young, otherwise healthy patients, the symptoms may be more subtle even with a large pneumothorax.  In patients with limited reserve (chronic smokers, COPD, pulmonary fibrosis, sarcoidosis) patients may experience shortness of breath, dyspnea/ difficulty breathing, chest and chest wall pain.  With large pneumothoraces or complete collapse of a lung, patients may become cyanotic, or develop respiratory distress.

In cases of pneumothorax caused by external puncture of the lung, or other traumatic circumstances, a patient may develop a life-threatening condition from a tension pneumothorax.  This can happen with a simple, primary lung collapse from bleb rupture, but it is uncommon. 

How is this treated?

Simple (or first-time) pneumothorax

Oxygen therapy – traditional treatment for small pneumothorax in asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic patients was oxygen via a face mask or non-rebreather.  Much of the more recent literature has discredited this as an effective treatment.

Tube thoracostomy  (aka chest tube placement) – a chest tube is placed to evacuate air from the thoracic cavity, to allow the lung to re-expand.  The chest tube is initially placed to suction until the lung surface heals, and the lung is fully expanded.  After a waterseal trial, the chest tube is removed.

Recurrent pneumothorax / other circumstances;

Blebectomy via:

  1. VATS (video-assisted thoracoscopy)
  2. Open thoracotomy or mini-thoracotomy

As we have discussed previously, the VATS procedure / open thoracotomy and mini-thoracotomy are not really stand alone procedures but are the surgical approaches or techniques used to gain entry into the chest.  Using a VATS technique involves the creation of one or more ‘ports’ or opening for the use of thoracoscopic surgical tools, and a thoracoscope (or camera.)  There are rigid and flexible scopes available; but most thoracic surgeons prefer the rigid scopes for better visibility and control of tissue during the operation[1].

blebs seen during VATS procedure

Open thoracotomy or mini-thoracotomy incisions may be used to gain access to the lung, particularly for resection of bullae (lung volume reduction) surgeries for the treatment of chronic disease.

During this procedure, fibrin sealants may be used.  Investigational use of both radio-frequency and other ablative therapies have also been used (Linchevskyy, Makarov & Getman, 2010, Funai, Suzuki, Shimizu & Shiiya 2011**).

Treatment Guidelines

British Thoracic Surgeons 2010 treatment guidelines

American College of Chest Physicians – a bit dated (2001)

Linchevskyy, Makarov & Getman, 2010.  Lung sealing using the tissue-welding technology in spontaneous pneumothorax.  Eur J Cardiothorac Surg (2010) 37(5): 1126-1128.

Funai, Suzuki, Shimizu & Shiiya (2011).  Ablation of weak emphysematous visceral pleura by an ultrasonically activated device for spontaneous pneumothorax. Interact CardioVasc Thorac Surg (2011) 12(6): 908-911. 

Pleurodesis may also be used – in combination with either tube thoracostomy or surgical resection.  Pleurodesis can be performed either mechanically, chemically or both.  Mechanical pleurodesis is accomplished by irritated the pleura by physical means (such as scratching or rubbing the pleura with the bovie scratch pad or surgical brushes.  A chest tube also produces a small amount of mechanical pleurodesis as the tube rubs on the chest wall during patient movement.

Chemical pleurodesis is the instillation of either sterile talc or erythromycin to produce irritation or inflammation of the pleura.  With bedside pleurodesis or tube thoracostomy pleurodesis, sterile talc is mixed with lidocaine and sterile water to create a talc slurry.  (If you like your patient, carry it in your pocket for 10 – 20 minutes to allow the solution to warm to at least room temperature.  This will help reduce the discomfort during instillation.)  The mixture should be in a 60cc syringe or similar delivery device – shake briskly before use.  The mixture is then instilled via the existing thoracostomy tube.  The chest tube is clamped for 30 – 60 minutes (dwell time) and the patient is re-positioned every 10 to 20 minutes. Despite the lidocaine, the talc will produce a burning sensation, so pre-medication is desirable.  This procedure has largely fallen out of fashion in many facilities.  Post-pleurodesis, pleural inflammation may cause a brief temperature elevation.  This is best treated with incentive spirometry, and pulmonary toileting.

Chemical pleurodesis can also be performed in the operating room.  Loose sterile talc can be insufflated, or instilled using multiple delivery devices including aerosolized talc.  As discussed in previous articles, pleurodesis can also be used for the treatment of pleural effusions.

Sepehripour, Nasir and Shah (2011).  Does mechanical pleurodesis result in better outcomes than chemical pleurodesis for recurrent primary spontaneous pneumothorax?  Interact CardioVasc Thorac Surg ivr094 first published online December 18, 2011 doi:10.1093/icvts/ivr094

Alayouty, Hasan,  Alhadad Omar Barabba (2011).  Mechanical versus chemical pleurodesis for management of primary spontaneous pneumothorax evaluated with thoracic echography.                     Interact CardioVasc Thorac Surg (2011) 13(5): 475-479 

Special conditions and circumstances related to Pneumothorax:

Catamenial pneumothorax – this a pneumothorax that occurs in menstruating women.  It usually occurs on the right-side and is associated with endometriosis, and defects in the diaphragm. A related case study can be viewed here.  Several recent studies suggest catamenial pneumothorax may be more common that previously believed and should be suspected in all women presenting with right-sided pneumothorax, particularly if pneumothorax occurs within 48 – 72 hours of menstrual cycle.  This may be the first indication of underlying endometrial disease.

Additional References

For more reference citations and articles about the less common causes  – see More Blebs, Bullae and Spontaneous Pneumothorax

Pneumothorax: an update – gives a nice overview of the different types of pneumothorax, and causes of each.

Medscape overview of pneumothorax – this is a good article with radiographs with basic information about pneumothoraces.

More on the difference between blebs and bullae – from learning radiology.com

Lung resection for bullous emphysema

Japanese study suggesting Fibulin-5 protein deficiency in young people with pneumothoraces.

VATS versus tube thoracostomy for spontaneous pneumothorax

What’s worse than a spontaneous pneumothorax?  Bilateral pneumothoraces – a case report.

Early article suggesting VATS for treatment of spontaneous pneumothorax (1997)

Blebs, Pneumothorax and chest drains


[1] Flexible scopes are usually preferred for GI procedures such as colonoscopy, where the camera is inserted into a soft tissue orifice.  By comparison, the thoracic cavity with the bony rib cage is more easily navigated with the use of a firm instrument.

** I have contacted the primary authors on both of these papers for more information.

Like all materials presented on this site, this paper is presented for information only.  It should not be considered medical advice or treatment.  Also, all information provided is generalized information and (outside of clinical case presentations) is not intended to treat of diagnose any disease or condition.  If you have questions about the content, please contact us.  If you have medical questions, please consult your thoracic surgeon or pulmonologist.