Pleurisy (Pleuritis)

What is pleurisy?

Pleurisy is a condition marked by chest pain (pleuritic pain). The pleura is a membrane made up of two thin layers of tissue. These tissues act as a liner in your chest. One wraps the chest wall and the other wraps the lungs. The tissues can become inflamed or irritated. This is known as pleurisy. Normally, they slide against each other in a smooth motion. When inflamed, they rub together. This motion can feel rough and cause pain.

Symptoms of pleurisy

Chest pain is the main symptom of pleurisy. The pain can be sharp and sudden. It can occur with certain actions, such as a cough or deep breath. Ongoing chest pain and shortness of breath are common. You also might have a fever or other aches. A broader range of symptoms depends on the cause of pleurisy.

What causes pleurisy?

Pleurisy is often caused by an infection. The infection could be viral, such as from the flu. It could be bacterial, like pneumonia or tuberculosis (TB). People who have a disease from asbestos also can get pleurisy.

Contact your doctor if you have signs of pleurisy. Your doctor should rule out more serious, high-risk causes first.

How is pleurisy diagnosed?

Your doctor will review your medical history. He or she will also will perform a physical exam. Sometimes they can hear the tissues rubbing with a stethoscope. Based on these results, the doctor can order several tests. These include:

  • Blood test. An infection may show up in your blood. The test also can detect autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid disease or lupus. Pleurisy could be a symptom of both conditions.
  • X-ray. Your doctor can use an X-ray to get a picture of your chest. This will show if there is something in the space between the tissues (pleural space). Pneumothorax occurs when air or gas get in that space. Lung disease or lung injury can cause this condition.
  • The doctor can also use sound waves to get a picture of your chest. The clearer view may detect a pleural effusion. You can get this when fluid builds up in the pleural space.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan. This can check for other causes of pleurisy. A chest CT may find a blood clot in the lung (called a pulmonary embolism). It also could find hemothorax. This occurs when blood gets in the pleural space. It can be caused by a chest injury, chest surgery, or lung cancer.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). Your doctor may want to rule out heart problems or defects.

Can pleurisy be prevented or avoided?

Nothing can truly prevent pleurisy. Finding and treating infections early can help.

Pleurisy treatment

Treatment for pleurisy depends on the root cause. You can ease symptoms with medicine. Ibuprofen can help reduce pain and inflammation. Rest and reduced movement also can help with the pain.

Living with pleurisy

Viral infections will go away on their own. Your doctor may prescribe medicine for bacterial infections. More serious cases could require surgery or other treatment.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How will I know if pleurisy will go away on its own?
  • Once I have had pleurisy, am I at greater risk of getting it again?