Our lungs are separated from the chest cavity by a very thin membrane that folds onto itself, forming a two-layered membrane known as the pleura. Between the two layers is a small cavity known as the pleural membrane.
This cavity is filled with a small quantity of lubricating fluid, the primary function of which is to allow the two membranes to slide over each other with almost no friction. These two-layered pleural membranes allow the lungs to function smoothly during respiration.
Factors such as a viral or bacterial infection, tuberculosis, pneumonia, or pulmonary embolism cause the pleural membranes to inflame and swell. As they swell, they become like sandpaper. Thus, when you breathe in and out, the pleural membranes will rub against each other with friction, causing a severe, sharp pain.
This is a condition known as pleurisy. It causes a sharp, stabbing pain in one area of the chest as you breathe in and out. The pain is most severe when you take a deep breath in, because the lungs expand in order to accommodate all the air inhaled. This causes the pleural membranes to come close and rub against each other with friction, causing pain.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Pleurisy?
The most characteristic feature of pleurisy is a sharp, stabbing pain in one area of the chest, which is aggravated by respiration. This may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, coughing, sneezing, and fever.
Symptoms will vary from person to person depending on the underlying cause of pleurisy. For example, tuberculosis causing pleurisy will present a low-grade fever along with chills and rigors, night sweats, loss of appetite, and weight loss.
Is Pleurisy Contagious?
Pleurisy itself is not considered contagious. However, the causative organism of the condition, such as a virus, a pneumonia-causing bacterium, or Mycobacterium tuberculosis causing tuberculosis, can be transmitted from one person to another.
This does not mean, though, that if a person contracts a viral infection, tuberculosis, or pneumonia, they will then develop pleurisy. An individual who has a compromised or suppressed immune system, such as a person with AIDS or one who is on steroid therapy, can easily contract an infection from someone already sick. Pleurisy may also develop as a complication of the infection.
Therefore, whether pleurisy is contagious or not depends on its underlying cause. For instance, pleurisy due to a viral or bacterial infection can spread from one person to another, but pleurisy caused by a pulmonary embolism cannot be transmitted.
Pleurisy is not considered a separate disease; rather, it is regarded as a complication following a viral infection, tuberculosis, bacterial pneumonia, or other bacterial infection. Only in rare cases does the viral infection causing pleurisy transmit to another person, causing pleurisy in them as well.
Pleurisy causes inflammation of the inner lining of the lungs and the inside of the chest wall, resulting in sharp pains each time you draw a breath. Moreover, pleurisy is often a symptom of an underlying health condition which can further aggravate the inner linings of your lungs and even fill it up with fluid, as is the case with pneumonia. Various drugs are used to treat this condition, and each drug carries its own risk of side effects over prolonged use.
Medications Used to Treat Pleurisy
- Pain killers: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen are used to treat the pain associated with this condition. While most pain killers can be obtained over the counter without a prescription, it is strongly suggested to first seek a medical consultation with a specialist and get the right medication. Pain killers are powerful drugs, and as such, they come with their own side effects, which can range from developing ulcers in the mouth and stomach or bleeding from orifices, to developing mild to severe allergic reactions. Similarly, codeine is also used to treat pain, but this pain killer can cause bouts of dizziness coupled with fatigue and sleepiness, so make sure to take codeine just before bed. A helpful tip to alleviate some of the pain is to lie with the affected area of the chest facing the floor, as this can inhibit the affected area from expanding when you breathe, lessening your chest pain.
- Antibiotics: Since pleurisy can be caused by several underlying health conditions, be they viral, bacterial, or fungal, the treatment protocol can differ as well. Make sure to consult a physician at the earliest and determine the underlying cause of pleurisy. If the pleurisy is caused by bacteria, your healthcare provider will generally prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics to treat it. These antibiotics will either be given orally or in the form of injections depending on the severity of the condition. If the underlying cause is viral, then no additional treatment may be required, as the condition usually resolves itself in a few days.
If you have fluid collected in the pleura membrane, your healthcare provider may advise surgery to drain the fluid. Allowing further fluid buildup leads to more severe health complications, such as pleural effusion, so it is important to get this cleared up right away.
Usually, the doctor will prescribe medications to help resolve the condition, but if it persists, invasive surgery will likely be recommended, wherein chest tubes are inserted into the cavity to drain the fluids.
How to Avoid Infecting Others
Pleurisy is not contagious by itself, but since it is caused by several health conditions, including tuberculosis, influenza, and bacterial pneumonia, it can spread to others. Care should be taken when the underlying cause of pleurisy is viral, bacterial, or even fungal.
There are a few measures you can take to avoid spreading the infection to others, especially in cases of pleurisy caused by pneumonia, flu, or tuberculosis:
- Make sure you maintain a healthy distance from your loved ones to avoid infecting them with the condition. It is a good idea to maintain separate sleeping quarters until your health condition is resolved.
- Avoid sharing towels and common household utensils, as these can pass on pleurisy to others, especially when the underlying cause is bacterial, fungal, or viral.
- Make sure to keep your mouth covered with a handkerchief when coughing or sneezing, and maintain a healthy distance when speaking with others to limit their risk.
- Do not share food with others, since saliva can often spread the disease. Also, make sure to wash your hands with disinfectant regularly so as not to infect common household objects, such as the TV remote, computer, and others.
- Avoid touching others as often as possible, since you may inadvertently end up infecting them. It is important to maintain adequate hygiene to ensure you do not pass on the contagion to others close to you.
- Do not share utensils, as a regular dishwasher may not be effective in killing all the germs with a simple wash. A better option would be to keep the utensils you use separate from others to limit the contagion.
- Use boiling hot water to wash your clothes and utensils. Clean common areas with disinfectant often to avoid the spread of the contagion.
While these preventive measures may seem daunting at first, remember that it is equally important to prevent the spread of this infection to loved ones. These measures will enable you to do so.
If you have a chronic disorder or a weak immune system, consider getting vaccinated for pneumonia.
Pleurisy can be prevented by avoiding dusty environments and other causes of pleurisy, like asbestos exposure.
You can also get immediate relief by drinking natural tea with cough syrup.
Treatments for pleurisy are dependent upon the underlying cause. For example, if pneumonia is the underlying cause, then antibiotics are used.
Pleurisy’s prognosis depends on the severity of the underlying disease. If it is identified early, a full recovery is possible.