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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago


The treatment of pleural effusion depends on a number of variables, including the underlying condition and whether the patient is experiencing severe respiratory symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.

If you have been diagnosed with a pleural effusion, your doctor will work with you to find a treatment plan that will work best for you, given the type of effusion and your symptoms. Some of the treatment options are:

  • Diuretics and other heart failure medications are sometimes used to treat pleural effusion caused by congestive heart failure, fluid overload and other medical conditions

  • Chemotherapy, radiation therapy or medication infusion into the chest are often used to treat cancerous effusion

  • Draining via therapeutic thoracentesis or a chest tube is sometimes used for pleural effusions that are causing respiratory distress

  • Surgery is done to treat pleural effusions when they cannot be treated or managed with less invasive options; the two types of surgery are:

    • Video-Assisted Thoracoscopic Surgery (VATS)

      VATS is a minimally invasive procedure performed through small incisions in the chest. It is effective in treating effusions that are difficult to drain using other methods or that recur due to cancer. It is also known as thoracoscopic surgery.
    • Thoractomy

      A thoractomy is considered traditional or “open” surgery. It is recommended over minimally invasive options when the patient has a well established pleural space infection that usually complicates a bout of pneumonia. This type of infected pleural effusion is called an empyema. With early diagnosis, an empyema can be treated via simple chest drainage or VATS. If well established (>10 to 14 days), a thoracotomy is likely to be necessary.

      Thoractomies remove the fibrous tissue around the lungs and clear the infection from the pleural space. Patients who have thoractomies for empyema will need to have a chest tube in place typically for at least 1 week after surgery to drain fluid.


If you are concerned about pleural effusion or other lung diseases, please contact your physician to discuss ways to reduce your risk and whether or not you should be screened. If you do not have a physician, call our Physician Referral Service at 1-877-926-4664 or request a first time appointment online.

Last UpdateJune 16, 2011


To make an appointment with a physician, please call 1-877-926-4664.

New patients can request an appointment online.