The most common cause is post-surgical atelectasis, characterized by splinting, i.e. restricted breathing after abdominal surgery.
Another common cause is pulmonary tuberculosis. Smokers and the elderly are also at an increased risk. Outside of this context, atelectasis implies some blockage of a bronchiole or bronchus, which can be within the airway (foreign body, mucus plug), from the wall (tumor, usually squamous cell carcinoma) or compressing from the outside (tumor, lymph node, tubercle). Another cause is poor surfactant spreading during inspiration, causing the surface tension to be at its highest which tends to collapse smaller alveoli. Atelectasis may also occur during suction, as along with sputum, air is withdrawn from the lungs. There are several types of atelectasis according to their underlying mechanisms or the distribution of alveolar collapse; resorption, compression, microatelectasis and contraction atelectasis. Relaxation atelectasis (also called passive atelectasis) is when a pleural effusion or a pneumothorax disrupts the contact between the parietal and visceral pleurae.
Risk factors associated with increased likelihood of the development of atelectasis include: type of surgery (thoracic, cardiopulmonary surgeries), use of muscle relaxation, obesity, high oxygen, the lower lung segments.