Chylothorax: diagnostic approach

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Abstract

Purpose of review

This review evaluates recent research findings and proposes an up-to-date diagnostic approach for patients with suspected chylothorax.

Recent findings

Typically, chylothorax is a milky exudate with high triglyceride content (>110 mg/dl). However, milky appearance is not always the case and triglyceride levels can be less than 110 mg/dl, especially in fasting or malnourished patients. Transudative chylothoraces have been reported when cirrhosis, nephrosis or heart failure co-exist. In addition, although the vast majority of the white blood cells in chyle are lymphocytes, chylothoraces can be neutrophilic, especially the postsurgical ones.

Summary

Chylothorax is the accumulation of chyle into the pleural cavity usually due to thoracic duct leak and should be suspected not only in patients with milky effusions but also in the presence of certain co-morbidities or history of chest/neck trauma. Fluid triglycerides more than 110 mg/dl or less than 50 mg/dl virtually establish or exclude the diagnosis, respectively; ambiguous cases with values 50–110 mg/dl require lipoprotein analysis for the demonstration of chylomicrons. In fasting or malnourished patients lipoprotein analysis is suggested even with triglycerides less than 50 mg/dl. Typical pleural fluid in chylothorax is a lymphocytic exudate with low lactate dehydrogenase; atypical fluid characteristics (i.e. transudative nature, neutrophil-predominance or high lactate dehydrogenase) may be a sign of additional causes of pleural fluid accumulation.

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