Persistent air-leak in spontaneous pneumothorax--clinical course and outcome

Respir Med. 1998 May;92(5):757-61. doi: 10.1016/s0954-6111(98)90008-7.


Persistent air-leak in patients with spontaneous pneumothorax (SP) is not uncommon and may present a management dilemma in those who are unfit or unwilling for surgery. Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) has been advocated in the management of patients with broncho-pleural fistulae (air-leak persisting beyond 7 days): however the optimum time for surgical intervention remains unclear. We reviewed the records of 130 episodes of SP in 115 patients over a 2-year period to determine clinical course and outcome, particularly with respect to duration of air-leak. There were 90 first episodes and 40 recurrent episodes. Eighty-one episodes (62%) occurred in patients with underlying lung disease (secondary pneumothorax). Initial management consisted of chest-tube drainage in 104 episodes (80%) occurring in 90 patients, percutaneous needle aspiration in five patients (4%) and observation in 21 episodes (16%) in 20 patients. In the group treated with chest-tube drainage, there was spontaneous resolution of air leak and lung re-expansion in 90 episodes (87%). The overall incidence of broncho-pleural fistula was 34.6%. In the primary SP group. 75% of air-leaks ceased by 7 days and 100% by 15 days. In the secondary SP group, 61% of air-leaks resolved by 7 days and 79% by 14 days, after which time resolution of air-leak proceeded at a much slower rate. Five patients underwent surgery while nine patients were discharged with residual pneumothoraces. There were no major complications or mortality. Based on our findings, we advocate surgery for patients with air-leak persisting beyond 14 days, while favouring a conservative approach before this time, as the majority of air-leaks (especially in patients with primary pneumothorax) would resolve by 14 days.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Chest Tubes
  • Chronic Disease
  • Drainage
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Selection*
  • Pleurodesis
  • Pneumothorax / etiology
  • Pneumothorax / surgery*
  • Pneumothorax / therapy
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Time Factors