Bronchoscopy for atelectasis in the ICU: a case report and review of the literature

Chest. 2003 Jul;124(1):344-50. doi: 10.1378/chest.124.1.344.


Fiberoptic bronchoscopy has become a commonplace procedure in ICUs. Despite the fact that one of the most common indications for bronchoscopy is the presence of retained secretions and atelectasis, there is little research dedicated to its safety and utility in this clinical situation. This article presents a case of an intubated trauma victim who had undergone numerous bronchoscopic procedures, with varying degrees of success, for retained secretions and atelectasis. This review then seeks to answer the following three main questions regarding bronchoscopy in critically ill patients: (1) Is bronchoscopy effective in resolving atelectasis? (2) Is bronchoscopy superior to other means of resolving atelectasis? (3) Is bronchoscopy safe in critically ill patients? The patient was a 28-year-old man with no significant medical history who presented to the emergency department after his car was hit by a dump truck. He was found to have multiple leg fractures and a splenic rupture, and he was taken to the operating room for an exploratory laparotomy, splenectomy, and reduction of his fractures. He was then brought to the surgical ICU intubated, sedated, and receiving mechanical ventilation. Over the next 6 h, he developed progressive hypoxemia and diffuse, bilateral alveolar infiltrates on a chest radiograph (CXR). Four days postoperatively, a routine CXR revealed total atelectasis of his right upper lobe (RUL). Emergent bronchoscopy was performed, and a large mucus plug obscuring the RUL bronchus was removed. Follow-up CXR demonstrated resolution of the atelectasis. The next day, RUL atelectasis was again seen on his CXR. A repeat bronchoscopic examination and BAL failed to reveal any plug. A follow-up CXR showed continued atelectasis. Over the next week, the patient underwent daily bronchoscopy for atelectasis with variable degrees of improvement. Over the next 3 weeks, his pulmonary status improved until he was eventually extubated, and 1 month after hospital admission he was discharged to rehabilitation.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bronchoscopy*
  • Fiber Optic Technology
  • Humans
  • Insufflation
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Male
  • Pulmonary Atelectasis / surgery*
  • Safety