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Pleural Effusion

Your health care provider has told you that you have pleural effusion. Pleural effusion is the presence of extra fluid between the pleura. This area is called the pleural space. The pleura are two layers of thin, smooth tissue that surround the lungs and line the chest. 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 symptoms of pleural effusion?

The symptoms of pleural effusion include:

  • Sharp pains in the chest, especially when taking a breath, coughing, or sneezing

  • Trouble breathing

  • Cough

  • Fever

What are the causes of pleural effusion?

Common causes include:

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Cirrhosis of the liver

  • Pneumonia

  • Viral lung infection

  • Cancer

  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung)

  • Heart surgery

Chest infections (such as pneumonia) and heart disease are the most common causes. Less common causes include lung cancer.

How is pleural effusion diagnosed?

Your health care provider examines you and asks about your health history. Tests include:

Blood tests

Analysis of fluid in pleural space, CT scan, or ultrasound

How is pleural effusion treated?

The extra fluid may be drained from the pleural space. This is done with a procedure called thoracentesis. 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.

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 and other treatment for your heart. Your health care provider can tell you more about the cause of your pleural effusion and your treatment options.

What are the long-term concerns?

If untreated, pleural effusion can lead to serious health problems, such as collapsed lung.


Call your health care provider, or 911 for severe symptoms if you have:

  • Trouble breathing (call 911)

  • Worsening chest pain (call 911)

  • Continued coughing

  • Fever


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