Pleural Effusion

Topic Overview

Pleural effusion (say "PLER-uhl eh-FYOO-zhun") is the buildup of fluid in the space between tissues lining the lungs and chest wall (pleural space). Because of the fluid buildup, the lungs may not be able to expand completely, and that can make it hard for you to breathe. The lung, or part of it, may collapse.

How is pleural effusion diagnosed?

Pleural effusion is usually diagnosed with a physical exam and imaging tests, such as an X-ray or a CT scan. The doctor will also listen to the airflow in your lungs.

Blood tests or tests done on a sample of fluid taken from around the lungs may be used to help find out what caused the fluid to build up.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of pleural effusion may include:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain.
  • A fever.
  • A cough.

A minor pleural effusion may not cause any symptoms.

What causes pleural effusion?

Pleural effusion has many causes. They include heart failure, pneumonia and other infections, cancer, pulmonary embolism, liver disease, and inflammation of the tissues around the lungs.

How is it treated?

A minor pleural effusion often goes away on its own without treatment.

In other cases, doctors may need to treat the condition that is causing the pleural effusion. For example, you may get antibiotics to treat pneumonia. Or you could get other medicines to treat heart failure.

Pleural effusion can also be treated by removing fluid from the pleural space. This may help relieve symptoms, such as shortness of breath and chest pain. It can also help the lungs to expand more fully.

Fluid can be removed by placing a needle into the pleural space. This treatment is called thoracentesis. A small sample of the fluid may be removed and sent to a lab to find out what is causing the buildup of fluid.

If pleural effusion is severe or doesn't get better, a small catheter tube or a larger tube may be placed in the chest. This allows fluid to drain from the space surrounding the lungs. The tube stays in the chest until the fluid is drained or until the doctor removes it. Most people stay in the hospital while the chest tube is in.

With some conditions, such as lung cancer, fluid may keep building up over time. In these cases, a tube can be put in the chest for as long as the person needs it. It can be used to drain the fluid each time it builds up. Most people can go home with this type of chest tube and drain the fluid themselves.

Some people may get a treatment called pleurodesis to remove the fluid and then put a medicine into the chest cavity. This helps to prevent too much fluid from building up again.


Current as of: October 26, 2020

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Hasmeena Kathuria MD - Pulmonology, Critical Care Medicine, Sleep Medicine

Pleural Effusion