How is pleural effusion treated?

  • Treatment of pleural effusion is based on the underlying condition and whether the effusion is causing severe respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
  • Diuretics and other heart failure medications are used to treat pleural effusion caused by congestive heart failure or other medical causes. A malignant effusion may also require treatment with chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a medication infusion within the chest.
  • A pleural effusion that is causing respiratory symptoms may be drained using therapeutic thoracentesis or through a chest tube (called tube thoracostomy).
  • For patients with pleural effusions that are uncontrollable or recur due to a malignancy despite drainage, a sclerosing agent (a type of drug that deliberately induces scarring) occasionally may be instilled into the pleural cavity through a tube thoracostomy to create a fibrosis (excessive fibrous tissue) of the pleura (pleural sclerosis).
  • Pleural sclerosis performed with sclerosing agents (such as talc, doxycycline, and tetracycline) is 50 percent successful in preventing the recurrence of pleural effusions.


Pleural effusions that cannot be managed through drainage or pleural sclerosis may require surgical treatment.

The two types of surgery include:

Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS)

A minimally-invasive approach that is completed through 1 to 3 small (approximately ½ -inch) incisions in the chest. Also known as thoracoscopic surgery, this procedure is effective in managing pleural effusions that are difficult to drain or recur due to malignancy. Sterile talc or an antibiotic may be inserted at the time of surgery to prevent the recurrence of fluid build-up.

Thoracotomy (Also referred to as traditional, “open” thoracic surgery)

A thoracotomy is performed through a 6- to 8-inch incision in the chest and is recommended for pleural effusions when infection is present. A thoracotomy is performed to remove all of the fibrous tissue and aids in evacuating the infection from the pleural space. Patients will require chest tubes for 2 days to 2 weeks after surgery to continue draining fluid.

Your surgeon will carefully evaluate you to determine the safest treatment option and will discuss the possible risks and benefits of each treatment option.

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