Pleural Effusion | Pulmonology & Critical Care | Loyola Medicine

Pleural Effusion

Overview and Facts about Pleural Effusion

Pleural effusion is a build-up of an unusual amount of fluid between the layers of tissue outside of the lungs. The condition is sometimes referred to as “water on the lungs.” These layers of tissue help the breathing process for the lungs, and while some amount of fluid is normal, too much can be dangerous.

When there is an excessive amount of the liquid that is supposed to be there, the type of pleural effusion is “transudative.” If there is an excess of other types of fluid, including protein, blood, or inflammatory cells, this type of pleural effusion is called “exudative.” The condition is very common, with about 100,000 being diagnosed each year in the US.

Signs and Symptoms of Pleural Effusion

Some people can have pleural effusion without any symptoms, but those who do have signs and symptoms may experience the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Dry cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Inability to breathe easily unless you’re sitting up straight or standing up straight

Causes and Risk Factors of Pleural Effusion

Other medical conditions tend to increase the risk for this condition. The common causes for pleural effusion include:

Tests and Diagnosis of Pleural Effusion

The doctor will perform a physical exam and discuss your symptoms as a first step in diagnosing pleural effusion. Chest radiography, CT scans, or other imaging tests can provide pictures of the lungs, which can confirm the presence of excess fluid as well as confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment and Care for Pleural Effusion

Depending on what is causing your pleural effusion, your pulmonary and critical care specialist may only need to treat the underlying conditions. For example, if bacterial pneumonia is causing your pleural effusion, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic, or if you have congestive heart failure, you may receive a diuretic.

If the pleural effusions are large, infected, or inflamed, you may need to get them drained in order to feel relief and to prevent further issues. Procedures used are a tube thoracotomy or a pleural drain.