Chest Tubes

What is a chest tube?

A chest tube is also known as chest drain or chest drainage tube. It is a plastic tube that is put through the side of your chest. It uses a suction device to remove air, blood, or fluid from around your lungs or heart. A chest tube will help you breathe more easily.


Why may I need a chest tube?

  • Pneumothorax: This is a condition in which air escapes from the lung into the pleural space. This is the area between your lungs and your chest wall. A pneumothorax makes it difficult to breathe. This can happen with a traumatic chest injury, such as a rib fracture. A pneumothorax may happen if you use a ventilator or may be caused by an internal injury.

  • Pleural effusion: This happens when fluid builds up in the pleural space from certain conditions such as heart failure, infection, or a tumor.

  • Empyema: This is an infection in the pleural space.

  • Hemothorax: This is when blood leaks into the pleural space. A traumatic chest injury, a tumor, or bleeding problems may cause a hemothorax.

What happens after a chest tube has been inserted?

  • Medicines:

    • Antibiotics: This is used to fight an infection caused by bacteria.

    • Pain medicine: You may be given medicine to take away or decrease pain. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your medicine.

  • Tests: You may need a chest x-ray or a CT scan after your chest tube is inserted to check if it is in the right place. You may also need an x-ray after your chest tube is removed.

How can I help prevent problems with the chest tube?

  • Find a comfortable position: You may have pain or discomfort while the chest tube is in. Lie in a different position to help decrease your pain.

  • Deep breathe and cough: Deep breathing helps open the air passages in your lungs. Coughing helps to bring up mucus from your lungs. You can deep breathe and cough on your own or with the help of an incentive spirometer.

    • Take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can. Then push the air out of your lungs with a deep, strong cough. Cough into a tissue and throw it away. Take 10 deep breaths in a row every hour that you are awake. Remember to follow each deep breath with a cough.

    • An incentive spirometer can help you take deeper breaths. Put the plastic piece into your mouth and take a steady, deep breath in. Hold it as long as you can, and then breathe out. Use your incentive spirometer 10 times every hour that you are awake.

  • Check your chest tube for kinks or loops: Keep the tube close to you when you are in bed, but do not lie on it. Do not let loops of tubing hang down the side of your bed. Be sure your tubing is long enough so that you can move and turn in bed without pulling on it. Never clamp the tube yourself.

  • Keep the suction device below the level of your chest: This will help fluids drain out from your chest to the container below. This will also help prevent fluids from flowing back into your chest.

  • Make sure your chest tube is secure: Make sure your chest tube is securely taped to your body. Your chest tube may also be taped to the suction device to help prevent the tubes from coming apart.

  • Do not turn knobs or change settings on your device unless a caregiver tells you to: If your suction device has water in it, the water should bubble gently, with short periods of no bubbling. If there is a lot of bubbling that does not stop, this may mean that there is an air leak.

What are the risks of a chest tube?

  • You may get an infection in the area where the tube was inserted. The tube may damage organs that are close to your lungs. Your chest tube may move out of place when you move or turn. If this happens, you may need to have another chest tube put in.

  • You may get a blood clot in your leg or arm. This can cause pain and swelling, and it can stop blood from flowing where it needs to go in your body. The blood clot can break loose and travel to your lungs. A blood clot in your lungs can cause chest pain and trouble breathing. This can be life-threatening.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • You have severe pain and swelling at your wound area.

  • Your wound is red, draining pus, or has a bad smell coming from it.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • Blood or fluid soaks through your bandage.

  • Your bandage comes off.

  • Your arm or leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.

  • You suddenly feel lightheaded and have shortness of breath.

  • You have chest pain. You may have more pain when you take a deep breath or cough. You may cough up blood.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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