(Pleural Fluid Aspiration; Pleural Tap)
There are two types of thoracentesis:
- Therapeutic thoracentesis—to relieve the symptoms of fluid accumulation
- Diagnostic thoracentesis—to test for the cause of the fluid build-up
Reasons for Procedure
There is always a small amount of fluid in the pleural space. The fluid helps to lubricate the area. When too much fluid builds up in this space, it can make it difficult to breathe.
Your doctor may want to test some of the fluid after extracting it. The build-up of fluid can be a symptom of diseases or disorders, such as:
Complications are rare, but no procedure is completely free of risk. If you are planning to have a thoracentesis, your doctor will review a list of possible complications, which may include:
- A collapsed lung
- Reaccumulation of the fluid
- Damage to the liver or spleen
Factors that may increase the risk of complications include:
- A history of lung surgery
- A long-term, irreversible lung disease (such as emphysema
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
Your doctor may order:
A local anesthetic will be used. It will numb the area where the needle will be inserted.
Description of the Procedure
You will usually be asked to sit upright on the edge of a bed or chair. Your arms will be resting on a nearby table. A small patch of skin on your back, chest, or under your armpit will be sterilized. Anesthesia will be applied to help numb the area. A needle will be inserted between your ribs and into the pleural space. A thin plastic catheter may be used as well. You should avoid coughing, breathing deeply, or moving during the procedure. Some or all of the fluid will be drawn into the syringe.
Placement of Thoracentesis Needle
How Long Will It Take?
About 15 minutes
Will It Hurt?
You may feel slight pain or a stinging when the needle is first inserted. As the fluid is being extracted, you may feel a sense of pulling. Tell your doctor or nurse if you feel extreme pain, any shortness of breath, or faint.
At the Care Center
If the thoracentesis is being done for diagnostic reasons, the fluid will be sent to a lab for testing. Often, another chest x-ray will be done to ensure that the fluid has been removed.
Keep the area of skin where the needle was inserted clean and dry. To help make your recovery smooth, be sure to follow your doctor's instructions.
If a diagnostic thoracentesis was done, ask your doctor when to expect the results.
Call Your Doctor
After arriving home, contact your doctor if any of the following occurs:
- Signs of infection, including fever and chills
- Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or any discharge from the insertion site
- Pain that you cannot control with the medicines you have been given
- Cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain
- Coughing up blood
- Pain when taking a deep breath
American Lung Association
American Thoracic Society
The Canadian Institutes of Health Information (CIHI)
The Canadian Lung Association
Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. 16th ed. McGraw-Hill; 2005.
Mason RJ. Murray & Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 4th ed. WB Saunders; 2005.
Roberts JR. Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine. 4th ed. WB Saunders; 2004.
Last reviewed November 2009 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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