Managing malignant pleural effusion

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Release date: February 1, 2019
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Malignant pleural effusion can be managed in different ways, including clinical observation, thoracentesis, placement of an indwelling pleural catheter, and chemical pleurodesis. The optimal strategy depends on a variety of clinical factors. This article uses cases to illustrate the rationale for determining the best approach in different situations.


  • Asymptomatic pleural effusion in patients currently on chemotherapy does not require treatment but should be monitored for progression.
  • Indwelling pleural catheters are best used to treat effusion with lung collapse and are increasingly used as first-line therapy in other settings.
  • Chemical or mechanical pleurodesis results in filling the pleural space to prevent further fluid accumulation and can be accomplished by one of several methods.
  • For patients near the end of life, simple thoracentesis, repeated as needed, is a reasonable strategy.



Managing patients with malignant pleural effusion can be challenging. Symptoms are often distressing, and its presence signifies advanced disease. Median survival after diagnosis is 4 to 9 months,1–3 although prognosis varies considerably depending on the type and stage of the malignancy.

How patients are best managed depends on clinical circumstances. Physicians should consider the risks and benefits of each option while keeping in mind realistic goals of care.

This article uses brief case presentations to review management strategies for malignant pleural effusion.


Physicians and surgeons, especially in tertiary care hospitals, must often manage malignant pleural effusion.4 Malignancy is the third leading cause of pleural effusion after heart failure and pneumonia, accounting for 44% to 77% of exudates.5 Although pleural effusion can arise secondary to many different malignancies, the most common causes are lung cancer in men and breast cancer in women; these cancers account for about 75% of all cases of malignant pleural effusion.6,7


An 18-year-old woman with non-Hodgkin lymphoma has received her first cycle of chemotherapy and is now admitted to the hospital for diarrhea. A routine chest radiograph reveals a left-sided pleural effusion covering one-third of the thoracic cavity. She is asymptomatic and reports no shortness of breath at rest or with exertion. Her oxygen saturation level is above 92% on room air without supplemental oxygen.

Thoracentesis reveals an exudative effusion, and cytologic study shows malignant lymphoid cells, consistent with a malignant pleural effusion. Cultures are negative.

What is the appropriate next step to manage this patient’s effusion?

Observation is reasonable

This patient is experiencing no symptoms and has just begun chemotherapy for her lymphoma. Malignant pleural effusion associated with lymphoma, small-cell lung cancer, and breast cancer is most sensitive to chemotherapy.5 For patients who do not have symptoms from the pleural effusion and who are scheduled to receive further chemotherapy, a watch-and-wait approach is reasonable.

It is important to follow the patient for developing symptoms and obtain serial imaging to evaluate for an increase in the effusion size. We recommend repeat imaging at 2- to 4-week intervals, and sooner if symptoms develop.

If progression is evident or if the patient’s oncologist indicates that the cancer is unresponsive to systemic therapy, further intervention may be necessary with one of the options discussed below.


Coronal computed tomography shows left-sided pleural effusion (red arrow) and collapsed lung (blue ar-row), along with midline shift.

Figure 1. Coronal computed tomography shows left-sided pleural effusion (red arrow) and collapsed lung (blue arrow), along with midline shift.

A 42-year-old man with a history of lung cancer is admitted for worsening shortness of breath. Chest radiography reveals a large left-sided pleural effusion with complete collapse of the left lung and contralateral shift of midline structures (Figure 1). Large-volume thoracentesis improves his symptoms. Pleural fluid cytology is positive for malignant cells. A repeat chest radiograph shows incomplete expansion of the left lung, thick pleura, and pneumothorax, indicating a trapped lung (ie, one unable to expand fully). Two weeks later, his symptoms recur, and chest radiography reveals a recurrent effusion.

How should this effusion be managed?

Indwelling pleural catheter placement

In a retrospective cohort study,8 malignant pleural effusion recurred in 97% of patients within 1 month (mean, 4.2 days) of therapeutic aspiration, highlighting the need for definitive treatment.

In the absence of lung expansion, pleuro­desis is rarely successful, and placing an indwelling pleural catheter in symptomatic patients is the preferred strategy. The US Food and Drug Administration approved this use in 1997.9

Indwelling pleural catheters are narrow (15.5 French, or about 5 mm in diameter) and soft (made of silicone), with distal fenestrations. The distal end remains positioned in the pleural cavity to enable drainage of pleural fluid. The middle portion passes through subcutaneous tissue, where a polyester cuff prevents dislodgement and infection. The proximal end of the catheter remains outside the patient’s skin and is connected to a 1-way valve that prevents air or fluid flow into the pleural cavity.

Pleural fluid is typically drained every 2 or 3 days for palliation. Patients must be educated about home drainage and proper catheter care.

Next Article:

Rapidly progressive pleural effusion

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