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Innovations in surgery have significantly increased the number of procedures performed every year. While more individuals benefit from better surgical techniques and technology, a larger group of patients previously deemed ineligible for surgery now undergo high-complexity surgical procedures. Despite continuous improvements in the operating room and post-operative care, post-operative pulmonary complications (PPCs) continue to pose a serious threat to successful outcomes. PPCs are common, serious and costly. Growing awareness of the impact of PPCs has led to intensified efforts to understand the underlying causes. Current evidence demonstrates that a high proportion of PPCs are directly traceable to the pre-operative risk for and perioperative development of atelectasis. The substantial costs and losses associated with PPCs demand strategies to reduce their prevalence and impact. Effective interventions will almost certainly produce cost savings that significantly offset current economic and human resource expenditures. The purpose of this review is to describe the most common challenges encountered in the recognition, prevention and management of perioperative atelectasis. Expanding awareness and understanding of the role of atelectasis as a cause of PPCs can reduce their prevalence, impact important clinical outcomes and reduce the financial burden associated with treating these complications.