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What Is Pleural Effusion?

Legally Reviewed by Joseph P. Williams on December 29, 2023

Pleural effusion is the gathering of fluid around the lungs, in the lining between the lungs and the chest cavity. The pleura is the thin membrane surrounding your lungs and the inside of the chest cavity. Effusion refers to an accumulation of fluid within the body. Pleural effusion is typically a symptom of a more serious illness rather than the illness itself. It is commonly associated with mesothelioma: cancer that generally stems from exposure to asbestos. Living with pleural effusion can be difficult and require treatments to alleviate symptoms.

Symptoms of Pleural Effusion

Another term for pleural effusion is water on the lung. It describes any excessive buildup of fluids in the lining of the lungs. While a small amount of fluid always exists in the pleura to help lubricate the lungs, too much fluid is dangerous. Pleural effusion is a common condition, affecting approximately one million new patients per year. It occurs most often when something irritates or inflames the pleura. Pleural effusion can lead to many different symptoms.

  • Pain in your chest
  • Dry or persistent cough
  • Persistent hiccups
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble breathing while on your back
  • Trouble breathing during physical activity
  • Fever

The excess fluid in the chest cavity can press on the lungs and make it harder to breathe. If you notice any of these symptoms or sudden trouble breathing, consult a doctor about possible pleural effusion. Pleural effusion on its own is generally not life-threatening. As a symptom of a larger disease such as mesothelioma, however, it could point to more serious health concerns.

Mesothelioma and Pleural Effusion

Pleural effusion could be a sign of an asbestos-related disease. This might be the case if you have scar tissues accumulating on the pleura of the lungs from asbestos as a source of irritation. You might have scarring of the pleura from asbestos particles rubbing against the tissues and irritating them over time. The inflammation, scarring and swelling from asbestos irritation could be enough to thicken the pleura and cause respiratory issues. Pleural thickening can worsen and spread to other parts of the lungs after each inundation of fluid.

A doctor may use chest x-rays, a physical exam to look for decreased chest movements and other methods to diagnose pleural effusion. Combined with other symptoms, such as chest pain, fever, night sweats, fatigue and muscle weakness, your pleural effusion could lead to a diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma. This is a type of cancer in the lungs, most often from asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is usually terminal, although patients may be able to extend their lifespans and improve quality of living with available treatments. Treatments may include medications or therapies to ease the effects of pleural effusion and other symptoms.

Pleural effusion could also point to other types of cancer spreading to the lining of the lungs. Cancer cells from lung, breast, ovarian, cervical or uterine cancers could block the normal flow of fluids in the pleura. This can cause a buildup of excess fluids, along with symptoms of pleural effusion. Leukemia and melanoma could also cause pleural effusion, as can common cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Is Pleural Effusion Treatable?

Minor pleural effusions typically go away on their own, without the need for medical intervention or special treatments. Moderate to serious pleural effusions may require medical care to treat the underlying cause of the respiratory problem, such as antibiotics for an infection. If you have pleural effusion due to mesothelioma, it may be untreatable. However, a physician could recommend remedies to alleviate the accumulation of fluid in the lungs and enhance your breathing, such as draining the fluid, receiving pleurodesis or undergoing surgery. See a doctor right away if you notice symptoms of pleural effusion for more information about your specific case, treatments, and prognosis. In the event mesothelioma caused your pleural effusion, explore your legal options with a qualified New York mesothelioma lawyer.

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