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What is pleurisy?

Pleurisy happens when the pleura becomes irritated or swollen. The pleura is a thin piece of tissue made of 2 layers. One layer lines the inside of your chest cavity, and the other surrounds your lungs. There is a small amount of fluid between the layers that helps them move easily when you breathe. When the pleura is irritated or swollen, the layers rub together as you breathe.

The Lungs

What causes pleurisy?

The cause of pleurisy is not always known. The following may cause pleurisy:

  • A viral infection, such as the flu
  • A bacterial infection, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis (TB)
  • An autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
  • Certain medicines
  • Lung cancer close to the pleura

What are the signs and symptoms of pleurisy?

  • Sharp, stabbing pain in your side or lower part of your chest
  • Pain that gets worse when you cough, sneeze, or take a breath in
  • Pain in your shoulder or abdomen
  • Pain when your rib area is touched
  • Fever or dry cough

How is pleurisy diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your signs and symptoms. Tell him or her if you have traveled recently or been around anyone who is sick. Your healthcare provider will listen to your lungs as you breathe. You may also need any of the following:

  • X-ray, ultrasound, or CT pictures may be used to look for swelling or extra fluid in and around your lungs or between the pleura. You may be given contrast liquid to help your healthcare providers see the pictures better. Tell the healthcare provider if you have had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.
  • A sample of your sputum may be taken to test for an infection.
  • Pleural biopsy may be needed to rule out other conditions.

How is pleurisy treated?

Treatment depends on the cause of your pleurisy and how severe your symptoms are. Your healthcare provider will treat the cause of your pleurisy. You may need medicines to treat a bacterial, fungal, or viral infection. You may need medicine to treat your pain and swelling of the pleura.

How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Find a comfortable position. You will need to rest to let your body heal. Find a position that allows you to decrease pain and breathe easier. You may find it comfortable to lie on the side that has the pleurisy. Change your position often to prevent complications, such as worsening pneumonia or a lung collapse.
  • Use pressure to prevent pain. Hold a pillow against your chest when you cough or take a deep breath.
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause lung damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.

How can I prevent pleurisy?

  • Get early treatment for conditions that cause pleurisy.
  • Ask about vaccines. Ask your healthcare provider if you should get a flu or pneumonia vaccine. These vaccines may prevent infections that cause pleurisy. The flu vaccine is given every year. The pneumonia vaccine is usually given every 5 years.

Call 911 if:

  • You have sudden, intense chest pain that feels different from your symptoms.
  • You are breathing fast, feel confused, or feel like you are going to faint.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You cough up yellow, green, gray, or bloody mucus.
  • You feel more short of breath than usual.
  • Your lips or fingernails turn dusky or blue.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your pain gets worse, even after treatment.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.
  • You have a fever.

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 healthcare providers 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.

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