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Cytology exam of pleural fluid

Definition

A cytology exam of pleural fluid is a laboratory test to detect cancer cells and certain other cells in the area that surrounds the lungs. This area is called the pleural space. Cytology means the study of cells.

Alternative Names

Pleural fluid cytology

How the Test is Performed

A sample of fluid from the pleural space is needed. The sample is taken using a procedure called thoracentesis.

The procedure is done in the following way:

  • You sit on a bed or on the edge of a chair or bed. Your head and arms rest on a table.
  • A small area of skin on your back is cleaned. Numbing medicine (local anesthetic) is injected in this area.
  • The doctor inserts a needle through the skin and muscles of the chest wall into the pleural space.
  • Fluid is collected.
  • The needle is removed. A bandage is placed on the skin.

The fluid sample is sent to a laboratory where it is examined under the microscope to determine what the cells look like, and whether they are abnormal.

How to Prepare for the Test

No special preparation is needed before the test. A chest x-ray will be performed before and after the test.

Do not cough, breathe deeply, or move during the test to avoid injury to the lung.

How the Test will Feel

You will feel stinging when the local anesthetic is injected. You may feel pain or pressure when the needle is inserted into the pleural space.

Tell your health care provider if you feel short of breath or have chest pain.

Why the Test is Performed

A cytology exam is used to look for cancer and precancerous cells. It may also be done for other conditions, such as identifying systemic lupus erythematosus cells.  

Your doctor may order this test if you have signs of fluid buildup in the pleural space. This condition is called pleural effusion. The test may also be done if you have signs of lung cancer.

Normal Results

Normal cells are seen.

What Abnormal Results Mean

In an abnormal test, there are cancerous (malignant) cells. This may mean there is a cancerous tumor. This test most often detects:

Risks


  • Bleeding
  • Infection
  • Collapse of the lung (pneumothorax)
  • Difficulty breathing

References

Celli BR. Diseases of the diaphragm, chest wall, pleura, and mediastinum. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 99.

Ruhl TS, Good JL. Thoracentesis. In: Pfenninger JL, Fowler GC, eds. Pfenninger & Fowler's Procedures for Primary Care. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 95.

Silvestri GA, Jett JR. Clinical aspects of lung cancer. In: Mason RJ, Murray JF, Broaddus VC, et al., eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 47.


Review Date: 8/25/2014
Reviewed By: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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