Question Of The Day #86

question of the day
420 - right pneumothorax1
Which of the following is the most appropriate next step in management for this patient’s condition?

Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, is a common reason for patients to visit the Emergency Department.  Dyspnea is often caused by a pulmonary or cardiovascular condition, but it is important to remember that dyspnea can be due to endocrine conditions, toxicologic conditions, neurologic conditions, hematologic conditions, musculoskeletal conditions, and psychiatric conditions. 

The initial approach to all patients with shortness of breath involves the primary survey, or “ABCs” (Airway, Breathing, Circulation).  This first involves checking the patient for a patent airway.  A simple method to assess the airway is to ask the patient to speak and listen for the voice.  A muffled voice, the presence of stridor, hematemesis, or a lethargic patient are clues that a patent airway may not be present.  Problems with the airway, such as an obstructing foreign body, inflammation (i.e., epiglottitis, anaphylactic shock), or vocal cord dysfunction can certainly cause shortness of breath.  Endotracheal intubation may need to be performed before moving forward.  Breathing is assessed by evaluating the function of the lungs.  Steps include looking at how the patient is breathing (fast or slow), measurement of an SpO2 level, and auscultation of both lungs for wheezing, crackles, rhonchi, or distant or absent sounds.  A low oxygen level should be immediately addressed with supplemental oxygen before moving forward.  The patient’s breathing rate and lung sounds can be very helpful in discovering the diagnosis and guiding treatment.  Lastly, circulation should be assessed.  Check the heart rate, blood pressure, peripheral pulses, skin color and temperature, and evaluate for any sites of hemorrhage.  The presence of hypotension or tachycardia should be addressed appropriately based on the presumed cause.  After the primary assessment (“ABCs”) and initial treatment actions, a more detailed history and physical exam should be conducted. 

Pertinent causes of shortness of breath for the emergency practitioner to know are outlined in the chart below. 


Select Causes of Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)



Tension pneumothorax, pneumonia, empyema, pleural effusion, pulmonary edema, asthma, COPD



Acute coronary syndrome (i.e., STEMI), pulmonary embolism, cardiac tamponade, Decompensated Congestive Heart Failure (acute pulmonary edema)



Diabetic ketoacidosis (Kussmaul breathing)



Salicylate overdose, or any ingestion that causes a severe metabolic acidosis



Intracranial hemorrhage, Stroke, Spinal cord injury, Guillain-Barre syndrome, Myasthenia Gravis crisis (myasthenic crisis)



Severe anemia (i.e., GI bleeding, trauma, miscarriage, post-partum hemorrhage, ruptured ectopic pregnancy)



Rib fracture, flail chest



Anxiety, Panic attack

Airway Problem

Foreign body, epiglottitis, anaphylactic shock (laryngeal swelling), expanding neck hematoma

This patient arrives to the Emergency department with acute onset shortness of breath with pleuritic right sided chest pain.  On exam, there is mild tachypnea and a borderline low SpO2 of 95% on room air.  The chest X-ray demonstrates a small right sided pneumothorax (see location of red stars below).

Needle decompression to the right chest (Choice C) would be the right choice if the patient had a right sided tension pneumothorax.  Signs of a tension pneumothorax are hypotension, tachycardia, tracheal deviation, and mediastinal shift on Chest X-ray.  Tension pneumothorax should be diagnosed clinically without a chest X-ray and promptly treated with needle decompression with a 14-16 gauge needle at the 2nd intercostal space in the mid clavicular line.  Needle decompression can also be performed at the 4th or 5th intercostal space in the anterior axillary line. Needle decompression is always followed by placement of a formal chest tube.  This patient does not have the hemodynamic instability or chest X-ray findings of a classic tension pneumothorax. IV Azithromycin (Choice D) would be appropriate for a COPD exacerbation or for community-acquired pneumonia.  This patient does have a cough, but lacks fever, sputum production, and also has a pneumothorax on X-ray that can explain his symptoms.  An IV Heparin bolus and infusion (Choice A) would be the ideal treatment for a pulmonary embolism or acute coronary syndrome.  Again, the Chest X-ray provided shows support for an alternative cause for the patient’s symptoms.  The best next step is supplemental oxygen (Choice B).  100% supplemental oxygen helps decrease the time to lung expansion in patients with pneumothoraces.   A nonrebreather mask at 15L/min is the ideal method to providing this level of oxygen.

This patient has a small pneumothorax (<3cm between lung margin and chest wall).  Small primary pneumothoraces have two treatment options.  The first option is to administer 100% oxygen and place a pigtail catheter for rapid lung re-expansion.  The second option is to only administer 100% oxygen administration for a period of 4-6 hours followed by a repeat chest X-ray to evaluate for improvement of the pneumothorax.   If the pneumothorax is improving and symptoms are improving (less shortness of breath and chest pain), the patient can be discharged home with close outpatient follow up and no chest tube placement.  Deciding which treatment option is best should depend on the patient’s ability to follow up with a doctor, patient reliability, and resource availability.  This patient does have a small pneumothorax by measurement, but he likely has a secondary pneumothorax from his COPD.  Secondary pneumothoraces have a higher rate of recurrence and almost always require chest tube placement.  Regardless, the best initial step in treatment is supplemental oxygen (Choice B).


Cite this article as: Joseph Ciano, USA, "Question Of The Day #86," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, April 29, 2022,, date accessed: March 24, 2023

Question Of The Day #56

question of the day

Which of the following is the most likely cause of this patient’s condition?

This trauma patient arrives with hypotension, tachycardia, absent unilateral lung sounds, and distended neck veins. This should raise high concern for tension pneumothorax, which is a type of obstructive shock (Choice C). This diagnosis should be made clinically without X-ray imaging. Bedside ultrasound can assist in making the diagnosis by looking for bilateral lung sliding, if available. Treatment of tension pneumothorax should be prompt and includes needle decompression followed by tube thoracostomy. Other types of shock outlined in Choices A, B, and D do not fit the clinical scenario with information that is given.

Recall that shock is an emergency medical state characterized by cardiovascular or circulatory failure. Shock prevents peripheral tissues from receiving adequate perfusion, resulting in organ dysfunction and failure. Shock can be categorized as hypovolemic, distributive, obstructive, or cardiogenic. The different categories of shock are defined by their underlying cause (i.e., sepsis, hemorrhage, pulmonary embolism, etc.) and their hemodynamics which sometimes overlap. The diagnosis of shock is largely clinical and supported by the history, vital signs, and physical exam. Additional studies, such as laboratory investigations, bedside ultrasound, and imaging tests help narrow down the type of shock, potential triggers, and guide management. The chart below details the categories of shock, each category’s hemodynamics, potential causes, and treatments.



Cite this article as: Joseph Ciano, USA, "Question Of The Day #56," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, September 24, 2021,, date accessed: March 24, 2023

Sudden Shortness of Breath

In case you didn’t encounter a sudden shortness of breath today!

A 23-year-old male patient presented with sudden onset SOB and chest pain. BP: 121/68 mmHg, HR: 102 bpm, RR: 22/min, T: 37, SpO2: 93% in room air. He has no history of disease. On the exam, you appreciated a decreased breath sound on the left and checked the thorax with bedside ultrasound. Here are the ultrasound findings of the patient.

What is your next action?

624.5 - Figure 5_Lung Point on M Mode

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Assessing Pneumothorax Size

Selected Pulmonary Emergencies

Pulmonary/Respiratory Emergencies selected from SAEM and IFEM undergraduate curriculum are uploaded into the website. You can read, all these chapters freely. More specific disease entities are on the way.


by Ayse Ece Akceylan Case Presentation A 50-year-old male with a history of asthma presents to the emergency department (ED) with shortness of breath, tachypnea,

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by Mary J. O. Case Presentation A 74-year-old male with a history of hypertension and diabetes presented to the emergency department with a cough productive

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Spontaneous Pneumothorax

by Mahmoud Aljufaili Introduction Pneumothorax refers to the presence of air in the pleural cavity. It can impair oxygenation/ventilation. There are two types of spontaneous pneumothorax

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