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Pleural Effusion

Your healthcare provider has told you that you have pleural effusion. Read on to learn more about pleural effusion and how it can be treated.

What Is Pleural Effusion?

Outline of human neck and chest showing fluid buildup under right lung. Healthy lung on left with small amount of fluid surrounding it in pleural space.

Pleural effusion occurs when fluid builds up in an area in the chest called the pleural space. This space is between the layers of tissue (pleura) that line the outside of the lungs. The pleural space usually holds only a small amount of fluid. This fluid lubricates the pleura. But if too much fluid fills the space, it can make it hard or painful to breathe. Chest infections (such as pneumonia) and heart disease are the most common causes. Less common causes include lung cancer.

What Are the Two Types of Pleural Effusion?

  • Transudative pleural effusion: This happens when fluid leaks into the pleural space from outside the pleura. The leakage may be due to increased pressure in the blood vessels. Or, low protein in the blood vessels can cause the leak.

  • Exudative pleural effusion: This occurs when the pleura itself becomes “leaky.” This is often due to the pleura being inflamed. Pleural inflammation can be caused by illness, especially lung cancer and other lung diseases.

How Is Pleural Effusion Diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider examines you and asks about your health history. You may have blood tests to take samples of your blood. Samples of the fluid in the pleural space may also be taken. And imaging tests, such as a chest x-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound, may be done to take detailed pictures of the inside of the body.

How Is Pleural Effusion Treated?

The extra fluid may be drained from the pleural space. This is done with a procedure called therapeutic thoracentesis. It relieves pressure on the lungs by removing the fluid buildup. You may have other treatments, depending on the cause of your pleural effusion. If it’s due to a bacterial infection, antibiotics (medications that fight infection) will be given. If it’s due to a heart condition, you will receive medications for your heart. In some cases, a tube is placed in the chest to drain the extra fluid. The tube will likely stay in place for several days. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about the cause of your pleural effusion and your treatment options.

What Are the Long-term Concerns?

With treatment, pleural effusion often can be cured or improved. Untreated, it can lead to serious health problems, such as collapsed lung. Ongoing treatment may be needed to help control or cure the underlying cause of your pleural effusion. This may require having procedures or taking medications for months or years. Your healthcare provider can tell you more if needed.

Call the healthcare provider right away if you have any of the following:

  • Severe trouble breathing (call 911)

  • Severe chest pain (call 911)

  • Skin that turns blue (call 911)

  • Cough

  • Fever of 100.4°F or higher


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