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Pleural Effusion

Overview :

There are two thin membranes in the chest, one (the visceral pleura) lining the lungs, and the other (the parietal pleura) covering the inside of the chest wall. Normally, small blood vessels in the pleural linings produce a small amount of fluid that lubricates the opposed pleural membranes so that they can glide smoothly against one another during breathing movements. Any extra fluid is taken up by blood and lymph vessels, maintaining a balance. When either too much fluid forms or something prevents its removal, the result is an excess of pleural fluid'an effusion. The most common causes are disease of the heart or lungs, and inflammation or infection of the pleura.

Pleural effusion itself is not a disease as much as a result of many different diseases. For this reason, there is no typical patient in terms of age, sex, or other characteristics. Instead, anyone who develops one of the many conditions that can produce an effusion may be affected.

There are two types of pleural effusion: the transudate and the exudate. This is a very important point because the two types of fluid are very different, and which type is present points to what sort of disease is likely to have produced the effusion. It also can suggest the best approach to treatment.


A transudate is a clear fluid, similar to blood serum, that forms not because the pleural surfaces themselves are diseased, but because the forces that normally produce and remove pleural fluid at the same rate are out of balance. When the heart fails, pressure in the small blood vessels that remove pleural fluid is increased and fluid backs up in the pleural space, forming an effusion. Or, if too little protein is present in the blood, the vessels are less able to hold the fluid part of blood within them and it leaks out into the pleural space. This can result from disease of the liver or kidneys, or from malnutrition.


An exudate'which often is a cloudy fluid, containing cells and much protein'results from disease of the pleura itself. The causes are many and varied. Among the most common are infections such as bacterial pneumonia and tuberculosis; blood clots in the lungs; and connective tissue diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Cancer and disease in organs such as the pancreas also may give rise to an exudative pleural effusion.

Special types of pleural effusion

Some of the pleural disorders that produce an exudate also cause bleeding into the pleural space. If the effusion contains half or more of the number of red blood cells present in the blood itself, it is called hemothorax. When a pleural effusion has a milky appearance and contains a large amount of fat, it is called chylothorax. Lymph fluid that drains from tissues throughout the body into small lymph vessels finally collects in a large duct (the thoracic duct) running through the chest to empty into a major vein. When this fluid, or chyle, leaks out of the duct into the pleural space, chylothorax is the result. Cancer in the chest is a common cause.

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