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To investigate the in vivo magnetic resonance (MR) characteristics of pleural effusions, MR imaging was performed on 22 patients who also underwent thoracentesis. Correlation of the MR scans with results of thoracentesis revealed significant differences among three types of effusions: transudates (T) (n = 4), simple exudates (SE) (n = 9), which did not have malignant cells or infection, and complex exudates (CE) (n = 9), which did have malignant cells or infection. Using normalized MR intensities, CE were more intense than SE, which were brighter than T. The second and third echoes (TE 66 and 99 ms) provided the best differentiation for these three classes of effusions, with p < 0.06 and p <0.006, respectively. Qualitative visual assessment of the increase in signal intensity was also useful in differentiating among the three types of effusions (p < 0.02). Effective T2 values (normalized to fat) were significantly shorter for exudates than for T (p < 0.02). Heterogeneity, loculation, and size of effusions were well evaluated on MR. Magnetic resonance is not specific for the etiology of effusions. Nevertheless, with analysis of both quantitative and qualitative parameters, MR may provide an effective noninvasive means for the initial characterization and serial follow-up of pleural effusions.