What is a pleural effusion?

A pleural effusion is an abnormal amount of fluid around the lung which can be caused by many medical conditions including asbestos dust inhalation. Of themselves they are not considered serious but require treatment to avoid later problems.

We understand the emotional and practical issues faced by families and friends when someone is under investigation, suffering from or has passed away from this condition. A member of your experienced helpline is waiting to talk with you to offer practical help and support.

Shortness of breath
Chest pain, particularly when breathing deeply

Pleural effusions are common and have several causes which might include inflammation or some other fluid retention issue within the body. It could also indicate an underlying problem such as an infection or blood clot within the lung, rheumatoid arthritis or cancer, including mesothelioma (cancer of the pleura) and lung cancer.

It is important to establish the cause of an effusion to enable proper treatment.

It is important you discuss any health concerns with your GP at the earliest opportunity.  Your GP will undertake a physical examination and discuss with you the basis of your concern and it is important you outline details of your earlier exposure to asbestos.

Your GP will refer you to see a Chest Physician at hospital where the extent and cause of your effusion can be established by means of;

Chest x-ray and/or ultrasound

Pleural fluid aspiration – Generally under local anaesthetic and following an ultrasound scan a thin needle will be entered into the pleural space around your lungs in order to draw off a sample of the fluid with the aid of a syringe. The sample will be tested in a laboratory, albeit studies have concluded there is only limited diagnostic value with results often unreliable or inconclusive.  If the extent of fluid (pleural effusion) is causing breathlessness it might be necessary to drain the fluid.


Pleural biopsy,  by one of two main methods both of which involve pleural examination by a Doctor;

  • Local anaesthetic thoracscopy (LAT) – In conjunction with any radiological and surgical findings histopathology of mesothelioma provides a conclusive diagnosis. Obtaining a lung biopsy is normally obtained under local anaesthetic guided by ultrasound or Ct Scan and involves passing a needle through the chest wall into the lung lining to obtain a tissue sample.
  • Thoracoscopy (also known as VATS – video assisted thorascopic surgery) – This is the preferred and most reliable method of biopsy performed under local anaesthetic which involves the use of an instrument known as a thoracoscope which is lighted scope and camera. The thoracoscope is entered into the pleural spaces around the lungs via a small incision in the chest and enables targeting of tissue biopsies and removal of fluid.

Treatment of the underlying cause is important which could resolve matters without the need of further treatment. Small symptomless effusions are often kept under observation without any intervention.

Treatment of a pleural effusion is aimed at removing fluid to allow the lungs to fully expand and to prevent further fluid build-up in the future.

A pleural effusion can be drained by

Chest drain

Performed under local anaesthetic by a Doctor a thin tube is normally inserted into the side of the chest wall through a small incision to enable collection of the fluid which is drained slowly into a drain bag or bottle. The fluid drained is likely to be bloodstained and your blood pressure will be monitored. A small effusion might be removed by a Doctor using a small needle or thin tube (cannula) which is inserted into the chest.

If fluid continues to build-up after a chest drain it might be necessary to have a special catheter fitted which is known as a tunnelled indwelling pleural catheter (TIPC) which allows fluid to be drained through a valve into a bottle at home by yourself, a family member or nurse. This is a painless process which removes the need for repeated hospital visits, injections and chest drains.


Once the fluid has been removed and the lung fully expanded a procedure can be undertaken which involves injection of a sterile talc mix and solution of saline into the pleural spaces via a chest drain or during video assisted thorascopic surgery (VATS) or local anaesthetic thoracoscopy (LAT). The mixture closes the linings around the lung and prevents further build-up of fluid.

What should I do if I have been diagnosed with a pleural effusion or I am under investigation for this or some other lung disease?

You should remain positive throughout any treatments or investigation and contact us without further delay so we might understand more about your situation which will help us to assess your eligibility to compensation and benefits.

Your solicitors can deal with your enquiry even if you were employed or exposed to asbestos in England, Ireland or Wales

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