Learning About a Pleural Effusion

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Lung with fluid buildup in pleural space, with detail of pleural space and fluid buildup.

What is it?

A pleural effusion (say "PLER-uhl eh-FYOO-zhun") is the buildup of fluid in the pleural space. This is the space between the tissues lining the lungs and the chest wall. Because of the fluid buildup, the lungs may not be able to expand completely. This can make it hard to breathe.

A pleural empyema (say "em-py-EE-muh") is a problem that can happen with pleural effusion. Bacteria or other infections cause pus to form in the pleural fluid. But most pleural effusions don't become infected.

What causes it?

A pleural effusion has many causes. They include pneumonia, cancer, inflammation of the tissues around the lungs, and heart failure.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of a pleural effusion may include:

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

A minor pleural effusion may not cause any symptoms.

How is it diagnosed?

A pleural effusion is usually diagnosed with an X-ray and a physical exam. The doctor listens to the airflow in your lungs.

How is it treated?

A pleural effusion can be treated by removing fluid from the space between the tissues around the lungs. This is done with a needle that's put into the chest (thoracentesis). A small amount of the fluid may be sent to a lab to find out what is causing the buildup of fluid.

Removing the fluid may help to relieve symptoms, such as shortness of breath and chest pain. It can help the lungs to expand more fully.

If the pleural effusion doesn't get better, a catheter may be placed in the chest. This is a flexible tube that allows fluid to drain from the lungs. The catheter stays in the chest until the doctor removes it. Some people may get a treatment that removes the fluid and then puts a medicine into the chest cavity. This helps to prevent too much fluid from building up again.

A minor pleural effusion often goes away on its own.

Doctors may need to treat the condition that is causing the pleural effusion. For example, you may get medicines to treat pneumonia or congestive heart failure. When the condition is treated, the effusion usually goes away.

For a pleural empyema, the pus needs to be drained. It may drain from a flexible tube placed in the chest. Or you may have surgery to drain it. You also will get antibiotics.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.