Shortness of breath

Many people with lung cancer have difficulty breathing (dyspnoea) and shortness of breath. This can be challenging and may cause distress.

There are surgical ways to reduce its impact on your life.

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Thoracentesis (pleural tap)

For some people, fluid may build up in the space between the two layers of thin tissue covering the lung (pleural cavity). This is called pleural effusion and may make it hard to breathe.

A procedure called thoracentesis or pleural tap can relieve pleural effusion.

  • To drain the fluid, your doctor or radiologist numbs the area with a local anaesthetic and inserts a hollow needle between your ribs into the pleural cavity. This will take about 30–60 minutes.
  • You don’t usually have to stay overnight after a thoracentesis.
  • A sample of the fluid is sent to a laboratory for testing.


Pleurodesis means closing the pleural cavity. This may be required if the fluid accumulates again after you have had a thoracentesis.

A pleurodesis is usually done with a type of keyhole surgery called video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS).

  • During the VATS, a thin instrument with a light is inserted into the pleural cavity and some sterile talcum powder is injected into the space. This causes inflammation that closes the pleural cavity and prevents fluid from building up again.
  • Pleurodesis is usually performed under a general anaesthetic by a thoracic surgeon and requires a hospital stay of two or three days. If you are unable to have a general anaesthetic, this procedure can be performed by a doctor under local anaesthetic.
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Indwelling pleural catheter

An indwelling pleural catheter is a small tube used to drain fluid from around the lungs. It may be offered to people who repeatedly experience a build-up of fluid in the pleural cavity that makes it hard to breathe.

  • The surgeon inserts the catheter through the chest wall into the pleural cavity. One end of the tube remains inside the chest, and a small length remains outside the body for drainage. This end is coiled and tucked under a small dressing. The pleural catheter is connected to a small bottle to remove fluid and help you breathe.
  • You may have to drain the fluid 1–2 times a week depending on how quickly it builds up again. You can manage the catheter at home with the help of a community nurse. Your family or a friend can also be taught how to clear the drain.
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This information was last reviewed in November 2016.
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