Warning Signs Of Pleural Effusion

May 10, 2024

Pleural effusion occurs when excess fluid builds up between the pleural layers outside the lungs. These thin membranes line the inside of an individual's chest cavity and the lungs. They help with lubrication and facilitation of breathing. Under normal circumstances, there is only a small amount of fluid present in the pleural layers. The condition varies in seriousness depending on the cause, whether a patient's breathing is affected, and whether it's treatable. The condition can be controlled or treated when it's caused by heart failure, pneumonia, or a virus. Treatment should generally involve the underlying cause and any associated mechanical problems.

High Fever And Chills

Some patients with pleural effusion might experience a high fever and chills. They may not be able to explain their fever. One study indicates individuals with both fevers and pleural effusion may have an underlying inflammation in the large arteries throughout the chest. This is particularly common when pleural effusion is centered around the left lung. The fever may also be present if the underlying cause of pleural effusion is an infection.

When the body has a bacterial or viral infection, the immune system needs to work harder to fight off the pathogens. It raises the body's overall temperature to accomplish this. Chills can accompany the fever when the body is putting so much energy into the immune system that it fails to keep an individual warm.

Dry Or Productive Cough

A productive cough produces phlegm, while a dry cough occurs without producing fluid, and when related to pleural effusion, the cough tends to be chronic. Any cough that lasts for more than three weeks should be evaluated by a medical professional, as it may be a sign of a more serious underlying medical condition. Some patients may experience a cough without any other associated symptoms.

The most common cause of pleural effusion is lung cancer, which is often the underlying cause of the coughing. Patients may cough up bloody sputum. When a cough produces blood, it should be evaluated by a medical professional as soon as possible, even if it hasn't lasted for three weeks.

Shortness Of Breath

In more serious cases, patients may experience shortness of breath. This symptom might be related to the underlying cause of the condition, or it may occur when the fluid buildup is severe enough to cause the lungs to become compressed. A doctor will typically drain the fluid to help ease the patient's breathing. Shortness of breath may present as difficult and labored breathing or an inability to breathe easily when slouching or laying down.

The more serious cases of pleural effusion involve shortness of breath, since impaired breathing can lead to a number of other complications. If the effusion isn't treated for a long time, it can lead to a permanent decrease in the lung's function and lung scarring.


Pleurisy occurs when the pleural membranes become inflamed. It leads to sharp pains in the chest that become worse when an individual breathes. These pains are often accompanied by shortness of breath because patients are trying to minimize the amount they breathe in and out. Some patients might also experience pleuritic pain in their back and shoulders. There are certain cases of pleurisy that occur without pleural effusion.

When pleural effusion does occur, and the fluid buildup becomes severe, there's a reduction in the pleuritic pain because the two pleural membranes aren't in contact with each other anymore. However, this amount of fluid can cause serious pressure on the lungs that can lead to the partial or total collapse of one or both lungs.

Loss Of Appetite

A pleural effusion is sometimes accompanied by a loss of appetite. This most commonly occurs with malignant pleural effusion, otherwise known as pleural effusion caused by cancer. Malignant pleural effusion causes serious shortness of breath and is often indicative of a poor cancer prognosis. Since the cancer is advanced, it tends to cause recurring pleural effusions rather than a single occurrence. By contrast, when the cause is a viral infection, the effusion generally subsides once the infection is treated. It may be difficult for patients to manage their pleural effusion, which may, in turn, lead to a reduction in the patient's quality of life.

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