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Pleural effusions following cardiac surgery

John E Heffner, MD
Section Editor
V Courtney Broaddus, MD
Deputy Editor
Geraldine Finlay, MD


Postoperative pleural effusions are common in patients who undergo cardiac surgery [1-13]. Most of these effusions develop as a consequence of the surgical procedure itself ("nonspecific pleural effusions") and follow a generally benign course. Postoperative pleural effusions may also occur with postpericardiotomy syndrome (PPCS, also known as the postcardiac injury syndrome or Dressler's syndrome), or as the initial manifestation of a potentially serious complicating event, such as heart failure or pulmonary embolism (table 1).

The extent of the evaluation required for a postoperative pleural effusion depends upon the presence of associated cardiovascular symptoms and the volume, timing of onset, progression, and persistence of the pleural effusion. Effusions with the following characteristics almost invariably represent nonspecific pleural effusions, and require only observation:

Small to moderate in size

Present within one to two days after surgery and not progressive

Not associated with respiratory symptoms

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Literature review current through: Sep 2017. | This topic last updated: Feb 23, 2016.
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