What Is a Sucking Chest Wound? Signs and Treatment

Medically Reviewed By Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH

A sucking chest wound develops when an injury causes a hole in the chest, allowing air to collect outside the lung but within the chest cavity. It typically develops from an injury such as a stabbing or impalement. The “sucking” noise occurs when the person inhales or exhales air through the wound. The treatment for a sucking chest wound consists of immediate emergency care, which involves covering or sealing the wound, and then surgery at a hospital. 

This article explains what a sucking chest wound is in more detail, including the causes and how to recognize and treat it.

What is a sucking chest wound?

person showing chest
Anna Artemenko/Stocksy United

A sucking chest wound, also called an open pneumothorax, develops when there is a hole in the chest, and air collects outside the lung within the chest cavity.

When the person breathes air in or out, it creates a sucking noise. The pressure of the air collecting outside the lung can cause Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source this organ to collapse. This is a life threatening injury requiring emergency treatment. 

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What are the signs of a sucking chest wound?

The signs and symptoms of a sucking chest wound include:

What can cause a sucking chest wound?

A sucking chest wound typically results from blunt or penetrating trauma or injury. Examples include: 

  • stabbing
  • gunshot wounds 
  • fractured rib
  • impalement 

How can you provide immediate aid for a sucking chest wound?

The initial treatment for a sucking chest wound focuses on closing the hole in the chest. Doctors do this by applying a sterile dressing to the wound and sealing it with medical tape on three sides. The fourth side should remain unsealed to allow air trapped around the lungs to escape.

Follow these steps if you need to treat a sucking chest wound right away:

  • Dial 911 and follow any instructions the operator provides. 
  • If impalement has caused the wound, do not remove the object responsible. 
  • Thoroughly wash and dry your hands and put medical gloves on if they are available. 
  • Remove loose clothing to expose the wound. If the fabric is stuck to the wound, leave it alone. 
  • Have the person exhale to blow out any trapped air. 
  • Apply a sterile dressing to the wound, sealing it on three sides with medical tape. If a medical dressing is not available, a zip-top bag can work.
  • If air starts to build up in the chest, remove the tape on one side to release the air, then reapply the tape. 
  • If possible, roll the person on one side. If they cannot breathe, return them to their back.  
  • If emergency services are unavailable, take the person to the emergency room.

How do doctors treat a sucking chest wound?

Once the person arrives at the hospital, sucking chest wound treatment starts with the insertion of a tube into the chest to remove any air, blood, or fluids.

Afterward, surgery can repair the wound. 

What are the complications of a sucking chest wound? 

The possible complications of a sucking chest wound include Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source :

How long does it take to recover from a sucking chest wound?

Recovery depends on the number and severity of the wounds. If there is just one sucking chest wound that is not severe, recovery can occur quickly.

If there are multiple wounds or they are more severe — for instance, they involve damage to organs or arteries — immediate recovery could take much longer.

Long-time recovery can take up to 6 months or more. The lungs and other damaged organs need time to rebuild strength and endurance. 

What is the outlook for someone with a sucking chest wound?

A sucking chest wound is life threatening, so immediate care is necessary, or it could be fatal. If a person receives prompt first aid and then effective treatment in the emergency room, they can recover relatively quickly. 

Summary

A sucking chest wound occurs when air escapes through a hole in the chest wall due to injury or trauma and becomes trapped in the chest cavity outside the lungs.

This trapped air could put pressure on the lungs, leading them to collapse. Immediate care is necessary to cover the wound and reduce the amount of air in the chest cavity.

Emergency treatment should follow the initial first aid to remove air, blood, and other fluids from the chest cavity and repair the hole in the chest. 

If you see someone with a sucking chest wound, call 911 immediately and follow the operator’s instructions. Immediate care could be key to saving the person’s life.  

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Medical Reviewer: Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 29
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