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Thoracentesis (say "thor-uh-sen-TEE-sis") is a procedure to remove fluid from the space between the lungs and the chest wall. This is called the pleural space. The procedure may also be called a "chest tap."
It is normal to have a small amount of fluid in the pleural space. But too much fluid can build up because of problems such as infection, heart failure, and lung cancer. The procedure may be done to help with shortness of breath and pain caused by the fluid buildup. Or you may have it done so the doctor can test the fluid to find the cause of the buildup.
Your doctor will put a long, thin needle or a thin plastic tube, called a catheter, between two of your ribs. The doctor will use the needle or catheter to take fluid out.
You may get medicine before the procedure. This helps with pain and helps you relax. The procedure will take about 15 minutes. Most people go home shortly after. You can go back to work or your normal activities as soon as you feel up to it.
If the doctor sends the fluid to a lab for testing, it usually takes a few hours to get the results. Some of the test results may take a few days. The doctor or nurse will discuss the results with you.
Thoracentesis may be done to:
Procedures can be stressful. This information will help you understand what you can expect. And it will help you safely prepare for your procedure.
This procedure may be done in your doctor's office, in the X-ray department of a hospital, in an emergency room, or at your bedside in the hospital.
You will need to take off all or most of your clothes (you may be allowed to keep on your underwear if it does not interfere with the procedure). You will be given a cloth or paper covering to use during the procedure. During the procedure, you will be seated but leaning forward on a padded bedside table. If your test is done in the X-ray department, X-rays or an ultrasound may be used to locate the fluid in your chest.
The needle site between your ribs will be cleaned with an antiseptic solution. Your doctor will give you a local anesthetic in your chest wall so you won't feel any pain when the longer needle that withdraws the fluid is inserted. When the area is numb, your doctor will insert the needle to where the fluid has collected (pleural space). You may feel some mild pain or pressure as the needle enters the pleural space.
Your doctor will use a syringe to remove a sample of fluid. If larger amounts of pleural fluid are removed, a small tube attached to a vacuum bottle is used. Your doctor will send the fluid to the lab. After the fluid is removed, the needle or small tube is removed. Then a bandage is put on the site.
An X-ray may be taken right after the procedure to make sure that no complications have occurred.
This procedure takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
When you are given the shot to numb your skin at the needle site, you will feel a sharp stinging or burning sensation that lasts a few seconds. When the needle is inserted into the chest wall, you may again feel a sharp pain for a few seconds.
When the pleural fluid is removed, you may feel a sense of "pulling" or pressure in your chest. Tell your doctor or nurse if you feel faint or if you have any shortness of breath, chest pain, or uncontrollable cough.
Thoracentesis is generally a safe procedure. A chest X-ray may be done right after the procedure to make sure that no complications have occurred. Complications may include:
Results from a lab are usually ready in 1 to 2 working days. If the fluid is being tested for an infection, such as tuberculosis, results may take several weeks.
A small amount of clear, colourless, or pale yellow pleural fluid, usually less than 20 mL (0.7 fl oz), is normally present. No infection, inflammation, or cancer is found.
A large amount of pleural fluid is present.
Fluid may be labelled as either a transudate or an exudate.
Adaptation Date: 3/2/2022
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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