Symptoms to Diagnosis

Pulmonary infarction due to pulmonary embolism

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A 76-year-old man whose history included abdominal aortic aneurysm repair, bilateral femoral artery bypass for popliteal artery aneurysm, hypertension, and peptic ulcer disease was admitted to a community hospital with pleuritic chest pain and shortness of breath. Two days earlier, he had undergone repair of a ventral hernia.

At the time of that admission, he reported no fever, chills, night sweats, cough, or history of heart or lung disease. His vital signs were normal, and physical examination had revealed no apparent respiratory distress, no jugular venous distention, normal heart sounds, and no pedal edema; however, decreased air entry was noted in the right lung base. Initial serum levels of troponin and N-terminal pro-B-type natriuretic peptide were normal.

At that time, computed tomographic angiography of the chest showed segmental pulmonary emboli in the left upper and right lower lobes of the lungs and right pleural effusion. Transthoracic echocardiography showed normal atrial and ventricular sizes with no right or left ventricular systolic dysfunction and a left ventricular ejection fraction of 59%.

Treatment with intravenous heparin was started, and the patient was transferred to our hospital.


1. Which of the following is true about pleural effusion?

  • It is rarely, if ever, associated with pulmonary embolism
  • Most patients with pleural effusion due to pulmonary embolism do not have pleuritic chest pain
  • Pulmonary embolism should be excluded in all cases of pleural effusion without a clear cause

Pulmonary embolism should be excluded in all cases of pleural effusion that do not have a clear cause. As for the other answer choices:

  • Pulmonary embolism is the fourth leading cause of pleural effusion in the United States, after heart failure, pneumonia, and malignancy.1
  • About 75% of patients who develop pleural effusion in the setting of pulmonary embolism complain of pleuritic chest pain on the side of the effusion.2 Most effusions are unilateral, small, and usually exudative.3


Our patient continued to receive intravenous heparin.

He underwent thoracentesis on hospital day 3, and 1,000 mL of turbid sanguineous pleural fluid was removed. Analysis of the fluid showed pH 7.27, white blood cell count 3.797 × 109/L with 80% neutrophils, and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) concentration 736 U/L (a ratio of pleural fluid LDH to a concurrent serum LDH > 0.6 is suggestive of an exudate); the fluid was also sent for culture and cytology. Thoracentesis was terminated early due to cough, and follow-up chest radiography showed a moderate-sized pneumothorax.

Wedge-shaped area of low attenuation suggesting a focal infarction in the collapsed and consolidated right lower lobe

Figure 1. Computed tomography shows a wedge-shaped area of low attenuation suggesting a focal infarction in the collapsed and consolidated right lower lobe.

Computed tomography (CT) of the chest at this time showed a small wedge-shaped area of lung consolidation in the right lower lobe (also seen on CT done 1 day before admission to our hospital), with an intrinsic air-fluid level suggesting a focal infarct or lung abscess, now obscured by adjacent consolidation and atelectasis. In the interval since the previous CT, the multiloculated right pleural effusion had increased in size (Figure 1).


2. What is the most appropriate next step for this patient?

  • Consult an interventional radiologist for chest tube placement
  • Start empiric antibiotic therapy and ask an interventional radiologist to place a chest tube
  • Start empiric antibiotic therapy, withhold anticoagulation, and consult a thoracic surgeon
  • Start empiric antibiotic therapy and consult a thoracic surgeon while continuing anticoagulation

The most appropriate next step is to start empiric antibiotic therapy and consult a thoracic surgeon while continuing anticoagulation.

In this patient, it is appropriate to initiate antibiotics empirically on the basis of his significant pleural loculations, a wedge-shaped consolidation, and 80% neutrophils in the pleural fluid, all of which suggest infection. The unmasking of a wedge-shaped consolidation after thoracentesis, with a previously noted air-fluid level and an interval increase in multiloculated pleural fluid, raises suspicion of a necrotic infection that may have ruptured into the pleural space, a possible lung infarct, or a malignancy. Hence, simply placing a chest tube may not be enough.

Blood in the pleural fluid does not necessitate withholding anticoagulation unless the bleeding is heavy. A pleural fluid hematocrit greater than 50% of the peripheral blood hematocrit suggests hemothorax and is an indication to withhold anticoagulation.1 Our patient’s pleural fluid was qualitatively sanguineous but not frankly bloody, and therefore we judged that it was not necessary to stop his heparin.

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