Understanding Pleural Effusion

Quite simply, a pleural effusion is the buildup of fluid in the pleural space, or the area between the lining of the lungs and the chest.  This fluid builds up specifically between the layers of tissue that line the lungs and the chest cavity.

What are the symptoms of a pleural effusion?


A pleural effusion can be accompanied by a variety of symptoms.  The most common of these symptoms are the following:

·         Chest pain

·         Difficulty breathing

·         Pleurisy, or painful breathing

·         Cough, this can be a dry or wet cough

·         Dyspnea

·         Fever

·         Chills

·         Loss of appetite

The pain associated with a pleural effusion is worse when the affected person breathes more deeply.  Furthermore, flu-like symptoms like fever and chills are often the result of a pleural effusion that is caused by and infection. 

What causes pleural effusions?

A pleural effusion is caused by fluid leaking into the pleural space.  This is the space between two membranes or layers around the lungs within the chest cavity.   To function normally, this space contains a small amount of fluid which prevents friction and help to ensure smooth movement and expansion of the lungs within the chest.  Unfortunately, under certain circumstances, abnormal amounts of fluid can find themselves in the pleural space and cause expansion of the space, crowding the lungs and causing the symptoms we mentioned earlier.   

Pleural effusions can be caused by many different things, but the following are some of the major causes of this condition:

·         Congestive heart failure

·         Kidney failure

·         Infection

·         Malignancy

·         Pulmonary embolism

·         Hypoalbuminemia

·         Cirrhosis

·         Trauma

Who is at risk for pleural effusion?

Those who are most at risk for pleural effusions are those who suffer from underlying medical problems such as those mentioned as causes for the pleural effusion.  Of all the causes, those which put people most at risk for pleural effusion are those who suffer from congestive heart failure, infections like pneumonia and malignancy.   

How do you diagnose a pleural infection?

Generally imaging tests are used to diagnose a pleural effusion.  Tests that might be recommended are:

·         Chest x-ray

·         Pleural fluid analysis

·         CT angiography

How do you treat a pleural effusion?

Some pleural effusions may not need any treatment at all, while larger, more serious ones do.  Most often, the initial treatment of a pleural effusion is draining the fluid around the lungs, or in the pleural space. This is done through a procedure called thoracentesis, in which a tube is inserted into the effusion and the fluid in drained. In some cases, surgery is required to clear the pleural space or insert medication at the source of the problem.  Depending on what the cause of the pleural effusion is, an antibiotic might be prescribed to clear up an infection that could be the culprit.

What are the complications of a pleural effusion?

Pleural effusions have the potential to cause other complications as well, which are more serious.  Some of these include:

·         Lung scarring

·         Pneumothorax (collapse of the lung)

·         Empyema (collection of pus within the pleural space)

·         sepsis