MountainView Hospital - April 23, 2021

In Las Vegas, a serious lung condition called spontaneous pneumothorax may be more prevalent with cases likely caused by marijuana usage. Spontaneous pneumothorax is a lung condition that occurs when air accumulates between the lungs and the chest wall causing a complete or partial collapse of the lung. It has typically been seen in younger adults, mainly males under 40 years of age in southern Nevada. Symptoms may include shortness of breath and chest pain.

Risk factors of the condition may include the length and quantity of smoking consumption. The use of marijuana may explain that larger puffs of air are consumed with this type of smoking, including a deeper inhalation and greater period of breath holding which may cause or exacerbate the condition. “Cannabis and tobacco-induced spontaneous pneumothorax has been seen in my practice at a more regular occurrence than ever before,” said Arnold Chung, MD, a robotically-trained Cardiothoracic Surgeon at MountainView Cardiovascular & Thoracic Surgery Associates. “We are seeing about two to five cases a month in our community,” said Dr. Chung.

If caught early, it can be treated and managed conservatively with observation by a physician using diagnostic imaging such as a chest X-ray to monitor and manage for signs of progression. Although rare, spontaneous pneumothorax can be life-threatening.  If necessary, a more aggressive approach may be needed including needle aspiration, chest tube insertion and even surgery to relieve the pressure and allow the lung to expand. 

With travel restrictions lifted and a return to normalcy more than a year since the pandemic began, a concern is air travel and developing pneumothorax in-flight.  “Any changes in cabin pressure could cause a pneumothorax,” said Dr. Chung.  He explained, “A major concern would be the accumulation of air in the chest which could compress the heart causing the heart to stop pumping which would then be life-threatening”.   In the event of developing the condition in-flight, immediate medical attention would be advised requiring the plane to land.

Although COVID-19 can increase the risk of chest complications, Dr. Chung said: “inflammation is a common cause and concern related to COVID-19 however, the virus does not necessarily cause mortality in relation to pneumothorax and it is unknown at this time if there is a link between the virus and pneumothorax.”