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Pleural effusion

Alternative names

Fluid in the chest; Pleural fluid


A pleural effusion is an accumulation of fluid between the layers of the membrane that lines the
lungs and chest cavity.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Your body produces pleural fluid in small amounts to lubricate the surfaces of the pleura, the thin
membrane that lines the chest cavity and surrounds the lungs. A pleural effusion is an abnormal
collection of this fluid.

Two different types of effusions can develop:

• Transudative pleural effusions are often caused by abnormal lung pressure. Congestive
heart failure is the most common cause.
• Exudative effusions form as a result of inflammation (irritation and swelling) of the pleura.
This is often caused by lung disease. Examples include lung cancer, pneumonia,
tuberculosis and other lung infections, drug reactions, asbestosis, and sarcoidosis.


• Shortness of breath
• Chest pain, usually a sharp pain that is worse with cough or deep breaths
• Cough
• Hiccups
• Rapid breathing

There may be no symptoms.

Signs and tests

During a physical examination, the doctor will listen to the sound of your breathing with a
stethoscope and may tap on your chest to listen for dullness.

The following tests may help to confirm a diagnosis:

• Chest x-ray
• Thoracic CT
• Ultrasound of the chest
• Thoracentesis
• Pleural fluid analysis
The cause and type of pleural effusion is usually determined by thoracentesis (a sample of fluid is
removed with a needle inserted between the ribs).


Treatment may be directed at removing the fluid, preventing its re-accumulation, or addressing
the underlying cause of the fluid buildup.

Therapeutic thoracentesis may be done if the fluid collection is large and causing pressure,
shortness of breath, or other breathing problems, such as low oxygen levels. Treatment of the
underlying cause of the effusion then becomes the goal.

For example, pleural effusions caused by congestive heart failure are treated with diuretics and
other medications that treat heart failure. Pleural effusions caused by infection are treated with
antibiotics specific to the causative organism. In patients with cancer or infections, the effusion is
often treated by using a chest tube to drain the fluid. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or instilling
medication within the chest that prevents re-accumulation of fluid after drainage may be used in
some cases.

Expectations (prognosis)

The expected outcome depends upon the underlying disease.


• A lung surrounded by a fluid collection for a long time may collapse.

• Pleural fluid that becomes infected may turn into an abscess, called an empyema, which
requires prolonged drainage with a chest tube placed into the fluid collection.
• Pneumothorax (air within the chest cavity) can be a complication of the thoracentesis
• In rare cases, surgery is needed to remove the abscess.

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if symptoms suggestive of pleural effusion develop.

Call your provider or go to the emergency room if shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
occurs immediately after thoracentesis.