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Surfactant is a complex naturally occurring substance made of six lipids (fats) and four proteins that is produced in the lungs. It can also be manufactured synthetically.


Surfactant reduces the surface tension of fluid in the lungs and helps make the small air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) more stable. This keeps them from collapsing when an individual exhales. In preparation for breathing air, fetuses begin making surfactant while still in the womb. Babies that are born very prematurely often lack adequate surfactant and must receive surfactant replacement therapy immediately after birth in order to breathe.


Babies are considered premature if they are born before 37 weeks gestation. Fetuses begin to produce surfactant between weeks 24 and 28. By about 35 weeks, most babies have enough naturally produced surfactant to keep the alveoli from collapsing. Babies born before 35 weeks, especially those born very prematurely (before 30 weeks), are likely to need surfactant replacement therapy. Over half the babies born before 28 weeks gestation need this treatment, while about one-third born between 32 and 36 weeks need supplemental surfactant. Some very premature infants may also need to be placed on a mechanical ventilator.


The lungs consist of spongy tissue filled with air spaces called alveoli. In the alveoli, oxygen is taken up by the blood and carbon dioxide, a waste product of cellular metabolism, is released and exhaled. For efficient oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange to occur, the surface area of the alveoli must be as large as possible. Under normal conditions, when a person exhales, the alveoli would collapse into each other and form larger air sacs with less surface area. Surfactant prevents this collapse by reducing the surface tension of the fluids that line the lungs and helping to equalize the pressures between large and small air spaces.
Surface tension is a measure of the attraction molecules of a fluid have for each other. The attractive force pulls fluids into a shape with the smallest surface area. This is why a drop of water on a flat surface is rounded rather than flat. If the surface tension is lowered, the attraction among molecules of the fluid is decreased and the surface area of the fluid increases. For example, if a drop of detergent is added to a drop of water, the detergent reduces the surface tension and the drop of water flattens out.
In the lungs, surfactant reduces the surface tension and helps to maximize the surface area available for gas exchange. Without adequate surfactant, a baby works much harder to breathe, becomes exhausted, and does not get enough oxygen. Babies that do not have enough surfactant to breathe normally at birth are said to have infant respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) or hyaline membrane disease (HMD).
Babies with RDS are given replacement surfactant as soon as possible within the first six hours after birth. Manufactured surfactant is a white powder that is mixed with sterile water. It is given through a breathing tube (endotracheal tube) that is inserted in the baby's lungs. Multiple doses are usually required.
Surfactant replacement therapy continues until the baby's lungs have matured enough to make surfactant on their own. Some very premature babies are also put on mechanical respirators to help them breathe. Surfactant replacement therapy has reduced deaths due to respiratory distress by 50% since the early 1990s. This therapy is expensive, but it is normally covered by insurance.


The administration of surfactant is often a neonatal emergency. The only way to prevent the need for surfactant replacement therapy is to prevent a premature birth. Mothers who are at known high risk to deliver prematurely are given drugs called corticosteroids toward the end of the pregnancy that stimulate the lungs of the fetus to mature and begin producing surfactant sooner. This helps reduce the need for surfactant replacement therapy. Although babies of all races may be born prematurely, prematurity is more common if the mother is diabetic, is carrying multiple fetuses, or has delivered a previous premature baby. The decision to use surfactant replacement therapy is based on the condition of the baby, its blood oxygen level, and degree of respiratory distress.


Babies receiving surfactant therapy are normally cared for by a neonatologist, a pediatrician that specializes in newborn care. Premature newborns often have other health problems in addition to RDS. Aftercare varies depending on their other health risks.


Delivery of surfactant requires inserting a breathing tube into the baby's lungs. Complications of this therapy include air leaking into the area between the chest wall and the lungs and air leaking into the sac around the heart. Some infants also develop chronic lung disease.

Normal results

Normally surfactant replacement therapy keeps the infant alive until the lungs start producing their own surfactant.

Abnormal results

Surfactant replacement therapy is very effective if begun within six hours after birth. When it fails, death may result.



Doctors Lounge, The. "Chronically Ventilated Premature Infants Need Continued Surfactant," 15 November 2004 [cited 16 February 2005].
Hyaline Membrane Disease/Respiratory Distress Syndrome. Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. 2001–2005 [cited 16 February 2005].
Pramanik, Arun. Respiratory Distress Syndrome, 2 July 2002 [cited 16 February 2005].
Surfactant. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. 1995 [cited 16 February 2005]. 〈;

Key terms

Alveolus (plural alveoli) — The terminal air sacs of the lungs where gas exchange occurs.
Hyaline membrane — A thin layer of cells that line the lung.
Surface tension — The attraction of molecules in a fluid for each other.


1. surface-active agent.
2. In pulmonary physiology, a mixture of phospholipids (chiefly lecithin and sphingomyelin) secreted by the great alveolar (type II) cells into the alveoli and respiratory air passages, which reduces the surface tension of pulmonary fluids and thus contributes to the elastic properties of pulmonary tissue. A synthetic surfactant is commercially available for use in the treatment of respiratory distress syndrome of the newborn. See also acute respiratory distress syndrome.


1. A surface-active agent, including substances commonly referred to as wetting agents, surface tension depressants, detergents, dispersing agents, emulsifiers, and quaternary ammonium antiseptics.
2. Those surface-active agents forming a monomolecular layer over pulmonary alveolar surfaces; lipoproteins, lecithins, and sphingomyelins that stabilize alveolar volume by reducing surface tension and altering the relationship between surface tension and surface area.
[surface active agent]


Physiology A mixture of phospholipids and proteins lining the alveoli that allows optimal gas–CO2, O2 exchange, by minimizing surface tension; surfactant is produced by type II pneumocytes and secreted as lamellar bodies into the amniotic fluid; fetal surfactant production begins by the 20th wk of gestation; it effectively prevents respiratory distress syndrome after wk 35. See L/S ratio, Respiratory distress syndrome, SP-A, SP-B, SP-C, Surfactant replacement therapy.


1. A surface-active agent, including substances commonly referred to as wetting agents, surface tension depressants, detergents, dispersing agents, and emulsifiers.
2. Those surface-active agents forming a monomolecular layer over pulmonary alveolar surfaces; lipoproteins that include lecithins and sphingomyelins that stabilize alveolar volume by reducing surface tension and altering the relationship between surface tension and surface area.


An agent that reduces the surface tension of oil or solid-water interfaces and therefore has cleaning properties. Note: the term is an acronym made from the following italic letters; surface active agent. Example: poloxamine, which is used in multipurpose solutions for soft contact lenses. See contact lens deposits; disinfection; enzyme; wetting solution.


A surface-active agent, including substances commonly referred to as wetting agents, surface tension depressants, detergents, dispersing agents, and emulsifiers.
References in periodicals archive ?
For secondary fibres production it is necessary to applied chemical treatments with different surface active agents.
1 dynamic surface tension at 0.1 s; 2 spray deposit area; 3 contact angle at 14 s MSO 1 - methylated seed oil of rapeseed oil fatty acids; MSO 2 - methylated seed oil of rapeseed oil fatty acids with a build-in system buffering pH of the spray mixture and surface active agents; PO - petroleum oil; UAN - 28% N urea ammonium nitrate; AMN - ammonium nitrate; AMS - ammonium sulfate.
Contributors mostly from chemical companies, but also universities and regulatory agencies provide a broad guide to the manufacture, chemistry, and uses of surface active agents. Writing particularly for new chemists and chemical engineers, but also for more experienced hands who are encountering surfactants for the first time, they cover what surfactants are, the basic theory, the applied theory, anionic and non-ionic surfactants, other types, and relevant regulations in various countries.
The first of the amendments concerns the obligation imposed by the Regulation that all surface active agents in detergents should be biodegradable and that they comply with at least one of the tests contained in Annex III of the Regulation.
Consequently it is inadvisable to use petrol, general solvents and detergents ( surface active agents ( for the cosmetic cleaning of sidewalls.
The various contributors between them have produced seventeen chapters, whose titles are: Introduction to use of antimicrobials; Sodium benzoate and benzoic acid; Sorbic acid and sorbates; Organic acids; Sulphur dioxide and sulphites; Nitrite; Parabens and phenolic compounds; Medium chain fatty acids and esters; Dimethyl dicarbonate and diethyl dicarbonate; Nisin; Natamycin; Bacteriocins with potential for use in foods; Naturally occurring compounds; Sanitizers - halogens, surface active agents and peroxides; Indirect antimicrobials; Antibiotic residues in foods and their significance; and Methods for evaluation.
Wettable Powders: Wettable powders can be defined as finely divided pesticidal dusts containing surface active agents that will allow the concentrate to be diluted to field strength to form stable sprayable suspensions.
Applications such as surface active agents, pharmaceuticals, lubricant composition, refrigerants and are also used as stabilizers for dibutylmagnesium (or n-Cbutyl-sec-butylmagnesium) in various industrial sectors.
Tenders are invited for Degreasing chemical alcoholic solvent with small amount of organic surface active agents.
The surface active agents can also prevent overprinting with a coating, foil stamping or other post-printing operations.
The European Commission approved, on April 2, the acquisition by Huntsman International LLC of surface active agents manufacturer Albright & Wilson Surfactants Europe, a division of Albright & Wilson Ltd.
Surface active agents, or surfactants, are materials that can adsorb onto surfaces or at interfaces and lower the surface or interfacial-free energies of aqueous-formulated systems.