A pleural effusion is a buildup of fluid between the layers of tissue that line the lungs and chest cavity.
Your body produces pleural fluid in small amounts to lubricate the surfaces of the pleura. This is the thin tissue that lines the chest cavity and surrounds the lungs. Pleural effusion is an abnormal, excessive collection of this fluid.
There are two types:
Symptoms can include any of the following:
Sometimes there are no symptoms.
Your doctor will examine you and listen to your lungs with a stethoscope.
The following tests may help to confirm a diagnosis:
The goal of treatment is to:
Removing the fluid (thoracentesis) may be done if there is a lot of fluid and it is causing chest pressure, shortness of breath, or other breathing problems, such as a low oxygen level. Removing the fluid allows the lung to expand, making breathing easier.
The cause of the fluid buildup must also be treated.
If it is due to congestive heart failure, you may receive diuretics (water pills) and other medications to treat heart failure.
Pleural effusion caused by infection is treated with antibiotics.
In people with cancer or infection, the effusion is often treated by using a chest tube for several days to drain the fluid.
Sometimes, small tubes can be left in the pleural cavity for a long time to drain the fluid. In some cases, the following may be done:
The outcome depends on the underlying disease.
Complications may include:
Call your doctor if you have symptoms of pleural effusion.
Call your doctor or go to the emergency room if shortness of breath or difficulty breathing occurs right after thoracentesis.
Fluid in the chest; Fluid on the lung; Pleural fluid
Broaddus C, Light RW. Pleural effusion. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus CV, Martin TR, et al, eds. Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 73.
Celli BR. Diseases of the diaphragm, chest wall, pleura, and mediastinum. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 99.
Updated by: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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