Pleural Fluid Analysis
When a doctor suspects that someone with chest pain, coughing, and/or difficulty breathing has a condition associated with pleuritis and/or pleural effusion
Pleural fluid is found in the pleural cavity and serves as a lubricant for the movement of the lungs during inhalation and exhalation. It is derived from a plasma filtrate from blood capillaries and is found in small quantities between the layers of the pleurae – membranes that cover the chest cavity and the outside of each lung.
A variety of conditions and diseases can cause inflammation of the pleurae (pleuritis) and/or excessive accumulation of pleural fluid (pleural effusion). Pleural fluid analysis is a group of tests used to help find the cause of the problem. There are two main reasons why fluid may collect in the pleural space:
- Fluid may accumulate in the pleural space because of an imbalance between the pressure within blood vessels—which drives fluid out of blood vessels—and the amount of protein in blood—which keeps fluid in blood vessels. The fluid that accumulates in this case is called a transudate. This type of fluid usually involves both lungs and is often a result of either cirrhosis of the liver or congestive heart failure.
- Fluid accumulation may be caused by injury or inflammation of the pleurae, in which case the fluid is called an exudate. It usually involves one lung and may be seen in infections (pneumonia, tuberculosis, sarcoidosis), malignancies (lung cancer, metastatic cancer, lymphoma, mesothelioma), rheumatoid disease, or systemic lupus erythematosus.
Differentiation between the types of fluid is important because it helps diagnose the specific disease or condition. Doctors use an initial set of tests (cell count, albumin and appearance of the fluid) to distinguish between transudates and exudates. Once the fluid is determined to be one or the other, additional tests may be performed to further pinpoint the disease or condition causing pleuritis and/or pleural effusion.
How is the sample collected for testing?
A sample of pleural fluid is collected by a doctor with a syringe and needle using a procedure called thoracentesis.
Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?
No test preparation is needed.
How is it used?
Pleural fluid analysis is used to help diagnose the cause of inflammation of the pleura (pleuritis) and/or accumulation of fluid in the pleural space (pleural effusion). There are two main reasons for fluid accumulation, and an initial set of tests (albumin, cell count and appearance of the fluid) is used to differentiate between the two types of fluid that may be produced:
- An imbalance between the pressure within blood vessels (which drives fluid out of the blood vessel) and the amount of protein in blood (which keeps fluid in the blood vessel) can result in accumulation of fluid (called a transudate). Transudates are most often caused by cirrhosis of the liver or congestive heart failure. If the fluid is determined to be a transudate, then usually no more tests on the fluid are necessary.
- Injury or inflammation of the pleurae may cause abnormal collection of fluid (called an exudate). Exudates are associated with a variety of conditions and diseases and several tests, in addition to the initial ones performed, may be used to help diagnose the specific condition including:
- Infectious diseases - caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi. Infections may originate in the pleurae or spread there from other places in the body. For example, pleuritis and pleural effusion may occur along with or following pneumonia.
- Bleeding - bleeding disorders, pulmonary embolism, or trauma can lead to blood in the pleural fluid.
- Inflammatory conditions - such as lung diseases, chronic lung inflammation due to prolonged exposure to large amounts of asbestos (asbestosis), sarcoidosis, or autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus.
- Cancer - such as lymphoma, mesothelioma or metastatic cancer
- Other conditions –unknown cause (idiopathic), cardiac bypass surgery, heart or lung transplantation, or pancreatitis.
When is it requested?
Pleural fluid analysis may be requested when a doctor suspects that a patient has a condition or disease that is causing pleuritis and/or pleural effusion. It may be requested when a patient has some combination of the following signs and symptoms:
- Chest pain that worsens with deep breathing
- Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath
- Fever, chills
- Pleural effusion may not cause any symptoms
What does the test result mean?
- Physical characteristics—fluid appears clear
- Protein or albumin level—decreased
- Cell count—few cells are counted
- Physical characteristics—fluid may appear cloudy
- Protein or albumin level—higher than normal
- Cell count—increased
Exudates can be caused by a variety of conditions and diseases and usually require further testing to aid diagnosis. Exudates may be caused by, for example, infections, trauma, various cancers, or pancreatitis. The following is a list of additional tests that the doctor may request depending on the suspected cause:
Physical characteristics – the normal appearance of a sample of pleural fluid is usually light yellow and clear. Abnormal results may give clues to the conditions or diseases present:
- Milky appearance may point to lymphatic system involvement
- Reddish pleural fluid may indicate the presence of blood
- Cloudy thick pleural fluid may indicate the presence of microorganisms and/or white blood cells
Chemical tests –tests that may be performed in addition to protein or albumin may include:
- Glucose—typically about the same as blood glucose levels. May be lower with infection and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Lactate levels can increase with infectious pleuritis, either bacterial or tuberculosis.
- Amylase levels may increase with pancreatitis, oesophageal rupture, or malignancy.
- Triglyceride levels may be increased with lymphatic system involvement.
- Tumour markers may be increased with some cancers.
Microscopic examination – Normal pleural fluid has small numbers of white blood cells (WBCs) but no red blood cells (RBCs) or microorganisms. Laboratories may examine the pleural fluid and/or use a special centrifuge (cytocentrifuge) to concentrate the fluid’s cells on a slide. The slide is treated with a special stain and evaluated for the different kinds of cells that may be present.
- Total cell counts—the WBCs and RBCs in the sample are counted. Increased WBCs may be seen with infections and other causes of pleuritis. Increased RBCs may suggest trauma, malignancy, or pulmonary infarction.
- WBC differential—determination of percentages of different types of WBCs. An increased number of neutrophils may be seen with bacterial infections. An increased number of lympocytes may be seen with cancers and tuberculosis.
- Cytology – a cytocentrifuged sample is treated with a special stain and examined under a microscope for abnormal cells. This is often done when a mesothelioma or metastatic cancer is suspected. The presence of certain abnormal cells, such as tumour cells or immature blood cells, can indicate what type of cancer is involved.
Infectious disease tests – these tests may be performed to look for microorganisms if infection is suspected:
- Gram stain - for direct observation of bacteria or fungi under a microscope. There should be no organisms present in pleural fluid.
- Bacterial culture and susceptibility testing is used to detect any microorganisms that may be present in the pleural fluid. If bacteria are present, susceptibility testing can be performed to guide antimicrobial therapy. If there are no microorganisms present, it does not rule out an infection; they may be present in small numbers or their growth may be inhibited because of prior antibiotic therapy.
Is there anything else I should know?
What is thoracentesis and how is it performed?
Are there other reasons to do a thoracentesis?
On This Site
Tests: Pericardial Fluid Analysis; Peritoneal Fluid Analysis; Gram Stain; Susceptibility Testing; Protein; Albumin; Glucose; AFB Smear and Culture
Conditions: Tuberculosis, Bleeding disorders, Autoimmune disorders, Rheumatoid arthritis, Systemic lupus erythematosus, Congestive heart failure, Pancreatitis, Liver disease
Elsewhere On The Web
BBC Health: Pleurisy
Medical Health Tests: Information on Pleural Tapping Procedure
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: What Are Pleurisy and Other Disorders of the Pleura?
American Cancer Society: Detailed Guide, Malignant Mesothelioma
MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Pleural fluid analysis
MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Thoracentesis