Pleural effusion


A pleural effusion is a buildup of fluid between the layers of tissue that line the lungs and chest cavity.

Alternative Names

Fluid in the chest; Fluid on the lung; Pleural fluid


Your body produces pleural fluid in small amounts to lubricate the surfaces of the pleura, the thin tissue that lines the chest cavity and surrounds the lungs. A pleural effusion is an abnormal, excessive collection of this fluid.

There are two different types:


Sometimes there are no symptoms.

Exams and Tests

Your doctor or nurse will examine you and listen to your lungs with a stethoscope.

The following tests may help to confirm a diagnosis:


The goal of treatment is to:

Removing the fluid (thoracentesis) may be done if there is a lot of fluid and it is causing chest pressure, shortness of breath, or other breathing problems, such as low oxygen levels. Removing the fluid allows the lung to expand, making breathing easier.

The cause of the fluid build up must be treated, too.

If it is due to congestive heart failure, you may receive diuretics (water pills) and other medications to treat heart failure.

Pleural effusions caused by infection are treated with antibiotics.

In people with cancer or infections, the effusion is often treated by using a chest tube for several days to drain the fluid.

Sometimes, small tubes can be left in the pleural cavity for a long time to drain the fluid. In some cases, the following may be done:

Outlook (Prognosis)

The expected outcome depends upon the underlying disease.

Possible Complications

Complications may include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of pleural effusion.

Call your provider or go to the emergency room if shortness of breath or difficulty breathing occurs immediately after thoracentesis.


Broaddus C, Light RW. Pleural effusion. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus CV, Martin TR, et al, eds. Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2010:chap 73.

Celli BR. Diseases of the diaphragm, chest wall, pleura, and mediastinum. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 99.

Review Date: 8/30/2012
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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