What is a pleural effusion?

When fluid builds up in the area between the lining of the lung and the chest cavity, it is called a pleural or pulmonary effusion. While this area normally contains a small amount of fluid, trauma, malignant cells, and infectious agents can cause this area to expand with abnormal amounts of fluid.

What are the risks?

Pleural effusions typically are accompanied by chest pain and difficult, painful breathing. If left untreated, pleural effusions can lead to:

  • lung scarring
  • collapse of the lung
  • collection of pus within the pleural space
  • sepsis (blood infection), sometimes resulting in death

What are the treatments?

Minor effusions may resolve on their own, while most larger cases will require intervention, starting with drainage of the pleural fluid. For drainage, the doctor will insert a small tube into the effusion, allowing the fluid to drain. Some severe cases may require surgery to break up adhesions or to help seal the pleural space and prevent future effusions.

Surgery can be done by either VATS procedure or thoracotomy.

What determines whether a VATS procedure of thoracotomy is performed is the duration of illness. Typically, the sooner it is identified, the more successful a minimally invasive approach will be. Illnesses that have been going on for several weeks to months often times require a thoracotomy for a successful procedure.

Your doctor may also choose to treat the effusion with medication such as antibiotics or diuretics.