Air trapping occurs when air stays in the lungs instead of being fully exhaled. This causes overinflation of the lungs, making a person feel short of breath. It may be the result of lung disease or damage.

Air trapping can occur in people with lung conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Diseases like these can damage the lungs, leaving them unable to deflate fully. Subsequent breaths retain more air, leading to hyperinflation.

Air trapping can be slow-growing, and a person may manage it with breathing techniques. However, in some people, it can develop quickly and require emergency intervention.

This article examines the symptoms, causes, treatments, prevention, and diagnosis of air trapping in the lungs.

A man on a walk in a forest, bending over to catch his breath after experiencing air trapping in the lungs. -2Share on Pinterest
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According to a 2018 case study, people who experience air trapping and COPD describe feeling a sensation of air hunger, shallow breathing, or unsatisfying or unrewarding inhalation.

Physically, this is the opposite of what is occurring, as they cannot exhale fully.

A 2020 study also suggested that wheezing or the feeling of needing to use a rescue inhaler frequently may accompany air trapping.

The lungs contain more than 300 million tiny, stretchy air sacs known as alveoli. Breathing in and out causes these air sacs to expand and deflate. Breathing out is usually an involuntary response, as the alveoli contract to force air out.

However, conditions such as COPD damage the alveoli’s walls, preventing them from deflating effectively. Air may remain in the lungs and continue to accumulate with subsequent breathing.

Inflammation and swelling in the airways may further restrict airflow, causing chest tightness and shortness of breath.

Doctors may recommend several treatments for air trapping depending on the severity of the condition.

Shortness of breath can cause a person to breathe too rapidly. In this instance, a doctor may recommend controlled breathing techniques to a person with air trapping.

The American Lung Association (ALA) states that pursed lip breathing is a technique that can restore expected breathing motion and improve airflow through the respiratory system.

A doctor may prescribe bronchodilators to people experiencing poor airflow in their lungs. These are medications that can help to improve lung function.

According to the ALA, lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) is an option for people with damaged lungs. This process involves removing the diseased part of the lung surgically.

However, LVRS may only be suitable for some people who experience air trapping. Due to the risk of complications, doctors may recommend medical therapy or nonsurgical bronchoscopic lung volume reduction (BLVR) treatment.

BLVR uses coils or endobronchial valves to reduce a person’s lung volume. A 2022 study suggests that BLVR can lead to an increased survival time for treated people when compared to nontreated people.

When a person’s lungs are not emptying correctly, they may benefit from slow, intentional breathing.

When out of breath, a typical response is to breathe deeply or faster. However, this may prevent a person’s lungs from emptying fully, particularly if lung tissue has disease or damage.

According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), breathing control can help a person to relax and breathe more efficiently. Some techniques it suggests include:

  • relaxed tummy breathing
  • pursed lips technique
  • recovery breathing
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A doctor may ask about symptoms to determine if a person has air trapping in the lungs. However, they will usually use medical imaging or testing to diagnose this condition.

The doctor may order a lung volume test to measure lung function and how much air a person’s lungs can hold.

They will usually do this alongside a spirometry breathing test to measure how much air a person can breathe in and out and how easily and fast a person can exhale.

Testing typically comes before medical imaging to diagnose air trapping. Medical imaging will often involve a comparison between an inhalation and an exhalation CT scan.

A person may wish to speak with a doctor if they are experiencing increased inhalation, wheezing, or discomfort that does not subside.

However, a person may need to seek emergency help if they experience the following symptoms and medication is not working:

  • it is hard to complete a sentence or walk
  • heartbeats are fast or irregular
  • lips or fingernails are gray or blue
  • breathing is fast and hard, even with medication

These symptoms can indicate a worsening of asthma or COPD.

Air trapping occurs when the lungs’ structures can no longer expel the amount of air taken in. As a person takes more breaths, air builds up in the lungs. This can lead to an inflated feeling and chest tightness or shortness of breath.

This condition usually occurs in conjunction with lung diseases such as asthma or COPD. Treatments may include breathing techniques to relax the body and respiratory system, medications, or surgical procedures.