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A pleural aspiration is a procedure where a small needle or tube is inserted into the space between the lung and chest wall to remove fluid that has accumulated around the lung. This space is called the pleural space.
Pleural aspiration is usually carried out to determine why there is fluid around the lung (diagnostic procedure) or to improve symptoms (therapeutic procedure), as the fluid around the lung may be causing symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath or chest pain.
Do not eat or drink for 4 hours before the procedure. This is a routine precaution for many medical procedures. If you are diabetic, you should check with your doctor before fasting.
You may need to stop medications that thin your blood, as this may unnecessarily increase your risk of bleeding. Examples include warfarin (often sold as Coumadin or Jantoven), clopidogrel (often sold as PIavix), asasantin, heparin and enoxaparin sodium (often sold as Clexane). If you take any of these medications or have any concerns about whether or not to stop taking them, please discuss this with your radiology practice before the procedure.
Bring all of your usual medication(s) (or a complete list) with you when you attend for the procedure.
Bring with you, if possible, relevant films or CDs containing your previous imaging. This includes X-rays, ultrasounds, computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It is common (but not essential) for people needing pleural aspiration to have had a chest X-ray, chest ultrasound or chest CT scan.
Make arrangements with a relative or friend to drive you home after the procedure.
A pleural aspiration is carried out whilst you are sitting upright on the side of a bed and leaning forward. You will usually be provided with a place to rest your arms so you can lean over comfortably.
The skin of your chest is washed with antiseptic and a very fine needle is used to administer local anaesthetic. The local anaesthetic stings for a few seconds before numbing the area.
A small cut is made in the skin and a needle or thin plastic tube is inserted into the space between your lung and chest wall to remove the fluid. The doctor may use an ultrasound to see the inside of your chest on a screen, as this can help find where the largest area of fluid is located.
Most frequently, this area is at the back of your chest or to the side. This is the reason why the doctor stands behind you while doing the pleural aspiration. You may be asked to hold your breath by the doctor who is carrying out the procedure.
Depending on the amount of fluid removed, a tube may be left in place whilst the fluid drains out.
After the procedure, the small opening in the skin is covered with a dressing.
A chest X-ray is usually carried out 2–4 hours after the procedure to assess for any complications. Complications are uncommon and are outlined in the ‘What are the risks of a pleural aspiration?’ section.
The area where the needle or tube has been inserted may feel a little tender for several days and there may be some bruising. If the area is painful, simple pain relievers, such as paracetamol (e.g. Panadol), may be helpful.
Your skin usually heals in a few days and you may have a tiny scar (typically less than 5 mm) at the site where the needle or tube was inserted.
The time taken for a pleural aspiration varies depending on how much fluid needs to be removed. It may take less than an hour or several hours. A chest X-ray is usually carried out 2–4 hours after the procedure and you will require medical supervision until this occurs. This X-ray is carried out to check for what is called a pneumothorax. A pneumothorax is a leak of air into the space around the lung (see the next section for more details).
There are some risks of a pleural aspiration that you should know about. Most of the more serious ones (pneumothorax, major bleeding from a large artery or vein in the chest, or fluid accumulation in the lung) occur at the time of or very soon after the procedure. This means they will be recognised while you are being observed in hospital or at the imaging facility.
Immediate risks of the procedure include:
After you are allowed to leave, seek medical attention urgently immediately if you notice any of the following, as they may suggest a serious complication that requires immediate treatment:
A sample of the fluid that has been removed can be sent to a pathologist (a specialist doctor trained in analysing fluid) to determine why it has accumulated.
A pleural aspiration can make you feel more comfortable, as the fluid around your lung may be causing symptoms including shortness of breath, cough or chest pain.
Many different types of doctors carry out pleural aspirations. It is commonly carried out by radiologists (specialist doctors), particularly if ultrasound guidance is used, surgeons, physicians and general practitioners.
A pleural aspiration is usually carried out in a hospital or large medical centre, as you will require monitoring throughout the procedure in a setting where medical staff will be available to treat you in the unlikely event of a complication.
If you are having fluid removed to relieve your shortness of breath, you can expect significant relief in the hours after the procedure.
If fluid is sent to a pathologist for further analysis, the time that it takes your doctor to receive a written report will vary depending on:
Please feel free to ask the staff where you are having your procedure when your doctor is likely to have a written report.
It is important that you discuss the results with the doctor who referred you, either in person or on the telephone, so that they can explain what the results mean for you.
The results of a pleural aspiration are sometimes inconclusive. If this occurs, the aspiration may need to be repeated or alternative tests may be required.
Page last modified on 26/7/2017.
RANZCR® is not aware that any person intends to act or rely upon the opinions, advices or information contained in this publication or of the manner in which it might be possible to do so. It issues no invitation to any person to act or rely upon such opinions, advices or information or any of them and it accepts no responsibility for any of them.
RANZCR® intends by this statement to exclude liability for any such opinions, advices or information. The content of this publication is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. It is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient and his/her doctor. Some of the tests and procedures included in this publication may not be available at all radiology providers.
RANZCR® recommends that any specific questions regarding any procedure be discussed with a person's family doctor or medical specialist. Whilst every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this publication, RANZCR®, its Board, officers and employees assume no responsibility for its content, use, or interpretation. Each person should rely on their own inquires before making decisions that touch their own interests.