What is pleurisy?

The pleura is the thin membrane that lines the outside of the lungs and the inside of the chest cavity. Pleurisy is an inflammation (swelling or irritation) of these two layers of tissue.

The pleural space is a thin area between the chest lining and the membrane that lines the lungs. Fluid lubricates the layers of the pleura so they slide smoothly alongside each other when you breathe. When the membranes become inflamed, they rub painfully against each other instead.

Pleurisy can cause sharp or stabbing chest pain and shortness of breath. It is also called pleuritis.

Who is affected by pleurisy?

Pleurisy can affect people with certain underlying medical conditions, such as infections or autoimmune diseases. Pleurisy occurs in people of all ages, but it develops most often in people over age 65. These people are more likely to develop chest infections.

People of Mediterranean descent have a higher risk for pleurisy due to a hereditary condition called familial Mediterranean fever. With familial Mediterranean fever, a genetic mutation (change) causes inflammation in the chest and abdomen.

What causes pleurisy?

Doctors do not always know what causes pleurisy. Infections usually cause the disorder. These infections can be viral (caused by a virus), such as influenza, or bacterial (caused by bacteria), such as pneumonia. While infections can cause pleurisy, pleurisy itself is not contagious.

Other conditions that can cause pleurisy include:

What are the symptoms of pleurisy?

Most people with pleurisy experience sharp or stabbing chest pain, also known as pleuritic pain. This pain often worsens when you cough or breathe in deeply. Sometimes the pain can spread to the shoulder or back.

Pain similar to pleuritic pain can also be a symptom of emergency medical conditions such as a heart attack or pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung). If you experience sharp chest pain, it is important to seek immediate medical attention to rule out these life-threatening conditions.

Other signs and symptoms of pleurisy can include:

  • Cough.
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness).
  • Fever.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Unexplained weight loss.

Can you get pleurisy more than once?

Yes. You do not become immune to pleurisy by having it and recovering. Also, some of the conditions that can cause pleurisy are chronic—you have them for a long time—so you may continue to be susceptible to inflammation of the pleura.

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