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Pleural Effusion

(Water on the Lungs)

En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


The pleura are two thin, moist membranes around the lungs. The inner layer is attached to the lungs. The outer layer is attached to the ribs. Pleural effusion is the buildup of excess fluid in the space between the pleura. The fluid can prevent the lungs from fully opening. This can make it difficult to catch your breath.

Pleural effusion may be transudative or exudative based on the cause. Treatment of pleural effusion depends on the condition causing the effusion.

Pleural Effusion

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Effusion is usually caused by disease or injury.

Transudative effusion may be caused by:

Exudative effusion may be caused by:

Risk Factors

Factors that increase your chance of getting pleural effusion include:

  • Having conditions or diseases listed above
  • Certain medications such as:
    • Nitrofurantoin (Macrodantin, Furadantin, Macrobid)
    • Methysergide (Sansert)
    • Bromocriptine (Parlodel)
    • Procarbazine (Matulane)
    • Amiodarone (Cordarone)
  • Chest injury or trauma
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery, especially involving:
    • Heart
    • Lungs
    • Abdomen
    • Organ transplantation


Some types of pleural effusion do not cause symptoms. Others cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach discomfort
  • Cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shallow breathing
  • Rapid pulse or breathing rate
  • Weight loss
  • Fever, chills, or sweating
  • Hiccupping

These symptoms may be caused by many other conditions. Let your doctor know if you have any of these symptoms.


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. This may include listening to or tapping on your chest. Lung function tests will test your ability to move air in and out of your lungs.

Images of your lungs may be taken with:

Your doctor may take samples of the fluid or pleura tissue for testing. This may be done with:


Treatment is usually aimed at treating the underlying cause. This may include medications or surgery.

Your doctor may take a "watchful waiting" approach if your symptoms are minor. You will be monitored until the effusion is gone.

If you are having trouble breathing, your doctor may recommend:

  • Breathing treatments—inhaling medication directly to lungs
  • Oxygen therapy

The pleural effusion may be drained by:

  • Therapeutic thoracentesis —a needle is inserted into the area to withdraw excess fluid.
  • Tube thoracostomy—a tube is placed in the side of your chest to allow fluid to drain. It will be left in place for several days.

The doctor may recommend chemical pleurodesis. During this procedure, talc powder or an irritating chemical is injected into the pleural space. This will permanently seal the two layers of the pleura together. The seal may help prevent further fluid buildup.

Radiation therapy may also be used to seal the pleura.

In severe cases, surgery may be needed. Some of the pleura will be removed during surgery. Suregery options may include:

  • Thoracotomy —traditional, open chest procedure
  • Video-assisted thorascopic surgery (VATS)—minimally-invasive surgery that only requires small keyhole size incisions


Prompt treatment for any condition that may lead to effusion is the best way to prevent pleural effusion.


American Lung Association


National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute



The Canadian Lung Association



Drug-induced pulmonary disease. Merck Manual for Health Care Professionals. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pulmonary_disorders/interstitial_lung_diseases/drug-induced_pulmonary_disease.html. Updated May 2008. Accessed March 3, 2013.

Pleural effusion. Remedy's Health Communities website. Available at: http://www.healthcommunities.com/pleural-effusion/overview-of-pleural-effusion.shtml. Updated June 1, 2000. Accessed March 5, 2013.

Pleural effusion-diagnostic evaluation. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated December 8, 2012. Accessed March 5, 2013.

Pleurisy and other pleural disorders. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/pleurisy/. Updated September 21, 2011. Accessed March 5, 2013.

12/10/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php: Roberts M, Neville E, Berrisford R, Atunes G, Ali N. Management of a malignant pleural effusion: British Thoracic Society pleural disease guideline 2010. Thorax. 2010;65 Suppl 2:ii32.

Last reviewed June 2013 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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