What is an Empyema?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 22 September 2019
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An empyema is a deposit of pus inside an existing body cavity. This condition is similar in nature to an abscess and can be associated with the same risk factors, but an abscess creates a new pocket or cavity in the body, while the empyema consists of pus that flows naturally into an existing space inside the body. Treatment usually includes placement of tubes for drainage along with the administration of medications to resolve the underlying cause of the condition and make the patient more comfortable.

Infection, surgery, and chronic inflammation are three common causes of empyema. People at risk for this condition may be monitored closely by their care providers and treatment of issues like infection and inflammation is recommended as early as possible to help patients avoid complications like empyema. Patients recovering from surgery are provided with information about potential surgical complications and symptoms so they know how to identify complications and seek treatment.

The most common place to develop an empyema is the pleural space, the area around the lungs. People with lung infections may experience exudation of pus into the pleural space, resulting in the development of am empyema. Symptoms vary depending on the location, but can include pain, fever, and difficulty breathing. A medical imaging study will show the collection of pus and provide information about how much pus is present. Testing can also be performed to look for causes and determine how long the pus has been collecting inside the patient.


Surgical drainage of the site is usually recommended to get the pus out and create an outlet for the drainage of additional pus in the early stages of healing. Once the pus has been drained, the pressure inside the body cavity is decreased and the patient should feel less distressed. Antibiotics and other medications can be given to the patient to treat the infection that led to the buildup of pus in the first place, and once new pus stops forming, the drains can be removed to allow the site to heal.

The longer an empyema is left untreated, the worse the potential complications for the patient. Deposits of pus can lead to inflammation of the tissue around the body cavity and may contribute to the thickening of tissue. In an area like the pleural cavity, this can make the lungs less elastic and cause long term problems like difficulty breathing and increased susceptibility to lung infections in the future.


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Post 1

I'm a nurse caring for a 49 year old male patient with empyema s/p chest tube placement day-7. He is doing well, lung sounds clear, temp normal, pain is the most concern at the moment. He is taking Percocet 5/325 q6hr prn with good results. Skelaxin ineffective (Duh!) I am encouraging him to ambulate often for short periods. Any comments would be welcome.

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