International Journal of Academic Medicine

: 2017  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 193--195

Diagnosis of pleural effusion with ultrasound

Laura A Wallace1, Eric J Adkins1, David P Bahner2,  
1 Department of Emergency Medicine, The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus, OH, USA
2 OPUS 12 Foundation, Columbus Chapter, OH, USA

Correspondence Address:
David P Bahner
Department of Emergency Medicine, The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus, OH 43210


We describe a case of a middle-aged male with end-stage renal disease who presented with dyspnea after a recent mycoplasma infection. The following core competencies are addressed in this article: Medical knowledge, Patient care. Republished with permission from: Wallace LA, Adkins EJ, Bahner DP. Bedside sonography primer: diagnosis of pleural effusion with ultrasound. OPUS 12 Scientist 2012;6(1):12-13.

How to cite this article:
Wallace LA, Adkins EJ, Bahner DP. Diagnosis of pleural effusion with ultrasound.Int J Acad Med 2017;3:193-195

How to cite this URL:
Wallace LA, Adkins EJ, Bahner DP. Diagnosis of pleural effusion with ultrasound. Int J Acad Med [serial online] 2017 [cited 2020 Nov 24 ];3:193-195
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 Introduction and Case Report

A 56-year-old male kidney transplant patient presented to the emergency department (ED) after recent hospital discharge for “walking pneumonia.” He complained of ongoing shortness of breath with productive cough worse than on discharge. On presentation, his oxygen saturation was 93% on room air. His physical examination was remarkable for absent breath sounds, dullness to percussion, and egophony in the lower left lung fields. Laboratories were notable for a white blood cell count of 5.1 with a left shift.

A chest X-ray [Figure 1] was read as “left pleural effusion with adjacent consolidation (which) may just represent atelectasis, though overlying infection cannot be excluded.”{Figure 1}

Thoracic ultrasound was performed at the bedside, which demonstrated the fluid present in the left lung space, with atelectasis of the left lung.

TTo rule out pleural effusion by ultrasound, an anechoic area of fluid must be visible between the parietal and visceral pleura. In addition, an area of atelectatic lung tissue may be visible in large effusions. There will be a lack of pleural sliding with inspiration as no aerated lung tissue crosses the near field of the ultrasound picture over the diaphragm and liver. In addition, vertebral bodies will be visible in the posterior chest as the pleural fluid provides an acoustic window for visualization [Figure 2] and [Figure 3].{Figure 2}{Figure 3}

For patients with suspected pulmonary pathology, ultrasound may be a faster and more cost-effective method of evaluating lung fields. X-ray evaluation of lungs is limited, and computed tomography (CT) is expensive and time-consuming. Literature supporting thoracic ultrasound for both diagnostic and therapeutic purposes is becoming more persuasive. Although CT is still considered the criterion standard for pleural effusion, ultrasound has been shown to be comparable to CT scanning and superior to chest X-ray.[1] In one prospective observational study, ED thoracic ultrasound was reported to have changed patient management in 41% of pleural effusion cases.[2] In 2008, “thoracic ultrasound for the detection of pleural effusion and pneumothorax” was added to the American College of Emergency Physicians core emergency ultrasound application guidelines.[3]

In addition, thoracentesis is an important procedure in emergency medicine for both diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. One prospective study [4] concluded that “the complication rate with thoracentesis performed by interventional radiologists under ultrasound guidance is lower than that reported for nonimage-guided thoracentesis.”

In this case, ultrasound was additionally used to guide a diagnostic thoracentesis performed in the ED before inpatient admission. The patient was started on broad-spectrum antibiotics while pleural fluid cultures were pending and admitted to the hospital for close clinical monitoring. Fluid studies and cultures demonstrated a transudative effusion and no culture growth, so the antibiotics were discontinued. As the effusion recurred after therapeutic thoracentesis, the patient underwent surgical drainage and pleurodesis before hospital discharge.


Justifications for re-publishing this scholarly content include: (a) The phasing out of the original publication after a formal merger of OPUS 12 Scientist with the International Journal of Academic Medicine and (b) Wider dissemination of the research outcome(s) and the associated scientific knowledge.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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3American College of Emergency Physicians. Emergency ultrasound guidelines. Ann Emerg Med 2009;53:550-70.
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