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Am Fam Physician. 2014 Jul 15;90(2):99-104.

Diagnostic approach to pleural effusion.

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  • 1Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD, USA.


Pleural effusion affects more than 1.5 million people in the United States each year and often complicates the management of heart failure, pneumonia, and malignancy. Pleural effusion occurs when fluid collects between the parietal and visceral pleura. Processes causing a distortion in body fluid mechanics, such as in heart failure or nephrotic syndrome, tend to cause transudative effusions, whereas localized inflammatory or malignant processes are often associated with exudative effusions. Patients can be asymptomatic or can present with cough, dyspnea, and pleuritic chest pain. Dullness to percussion on physical examination suggests an effusion; chest radiography can confirm the diagnosis. Thoracentesis may be indicated to diagnose effusion and relieve symptoms. Ultrasound guidance is preferred when aspirating fluid. Routine assays for aspirated fluid include protein and lactate dehydrogenase levels, Gram staining, cytology, and pH measurement. Light's criteria should be used to differentiate exudative from transudative effusions. Additional laboratory assays, bronchoscopy, percutaneous pleural biopsy, or thoracoscopy may be required for diagnosis if the initial test results are inconclusive.

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