Normally, the body produces small amounts of fluid to lubricate the pleura—the lining around the lungs and chest cavity—and the pericardium which surrounds the heart sac. An abnormal accumulation of fluid in these areas is called an effusion. With pleural effusion or “water on the lungs,” a build-up of excess fluid in the pleura can prevent normal breathing and cause shortness of breath. Pericardial effusion affects the functioning of the heart and can lead to heart failure.
Effusions can be caused by inflammation or infection. They are a common complication of cancers such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, as well as pulmonary conditions like pneumonia and tuberculosis. Fluid may also build up following radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Medication can provide relief for some symptoms and is effective for infected fluid. Surgery is often necessary to drain fluid and prevent it from building up again.
Board-certified thoracic surgeons and pulmonologists at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Lung Center provide specialized medical and surgical services for pleural effusion—often using techniques that are less invasive than traditional surgery. These include thoracentesis with ultrasound, performed for both diagnosis and therapy, and other minimally invasive procedures such as video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), pleurodesis and PleurX® catheter placement. As the thoracic surgical and pulmonary medicine specialists for Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, our physicians collaborate with other cancer experts to deliver the very latest advancements in cancer care.