Also referred to as “water on the lungs,” pleural effusion is the accumulation of fluid in the pleural space, the space between the layers of tissue that line the lungs and the chest cavity. The pleura are thin membranes that line the lungs and the inside of the chest cavity; they act to lubricate and facilitate your breathing. A small amount of fluid in the pleura is normal.
Excess fluid buildup can result from various underlying causes, leading to uncomfortable symptoms such as chest pain, coughing and difficulty breathing.
Read on to learn the causes, symptoms and available treatment options for pleural effusion. We’re here to support your optimal lung health by helping you know the signs so you can effectively manage this pulmonary condition with a dedicated team at your side.
Causes of Pleural Effusion
Pleural effusion can happen from various factors ranging from infections, heart failure and cancer to pneumonia and pulmonary embolism.
Bacterial, viral or fungal infections of the lungs can lead to pleural effusion, and conditions such as pneumonia, tuberculosis or lung abscesses can contribute to fluid buildup.
Congestive heart failure can cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs, leading to pleural effusion. Also, increased pressure in the lungs' blood vessels can result in fluid leakage into the pleural space.
Certain cancers, including lung, breast and lymphomas, can cause pleural effusion as cancer cells spread to the pleura. The presence of cancer in the pleural space can lead to fluid buildup.
Symptoms of Pleural Effusion
Pleural effusion can manifest with a range of symptoms, which can include:
- Chest pain: Pleural effusion can cause sharp or aching chest pain that worsens with deep breathing or coughing. The pain may be localized or spread across the chest
- Cough and wheezing: Some patients with pleural effusion experience a persistent cough or wheezing
- Shortness of breath: As fluid accumulates in the pleural space, it can compress the lungs and lead to difficulty breathing. Shortness of breath may be experienced, especially with physical activity or lying flat on your back
Diagnosis and Treatment Options
Diagnosing pleural effusion generally involves a combination of physical examination, imaging tests and fluid analysis. Treatment options depend on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. Here are some common approaches:
- Thoracentesis: Thoracentesis is a procedure where a needle is inserted into the pleural space to drain the accumulated fluid for diagnostic purposes and symptom relief. The fluid sample can be analyzed to determine the cause of the effusion
- Medications: Depending on the underlying cause, your doctor might prescribe medications such as antibiotics, diuretics or anti-inflammatory drugs to treat the condition contributing to pleural effusion
- Pleurodesis: Pleurodesis is a procedure that aims to prevent fluid recurrence by creating adhesions between the two layers of the pleura. It involves the introduction of a substance into the pleural space to induce inflammation and subsequent adhesion formation
- Surgery: Pleural effusions that can’t be managed through drainage or pleural sclerosis may require surgery. The two types of surgery include a minimally invasive approach (VATS, or video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery) or a thoracotomy (“open” thoracic surgery). Your doctor will determine the safest treatment option and will discuss the possible risks and benefits of each one
Breathe Easier With Expert Lung Care
If you're experiencing symptoms of pleural effusion and require expert care, the lung experts at AdventHealth are here to help. Our experienced health care professionals specialize in diagnosing and treating pleural effusion while providing comprehensive care and support.