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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : What is inflammation of the rib cage lining called? Is it a serious condition?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief editor of Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.

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January 21, 2011
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A:

The lining inside the rib cage and around the lung is called the pleura. Inflammation of this lining is known as pleuritis, but the more commonly used term is pleurisy.

Normally there is a very tiny amount of fluid between the pleural surface that surrounds the lung and the pleural surface that covers the inside of the rib cage. The fluid is the grease that allows the two smooth surfaces to glide over each other as you breathe in to expand the lungs and breathe out as the lungs contract.

Many years ago when tuberculosis (TB) was more common in the United States, pleurisy was often associated with TB. So, a diagnosis of pleurisy could be scary.

While pleuritis is quite common in the U.S. today, it is very rarely caused by TB.

The main symptom of pleuritis is pain when you take a deep breath. Most often the cause of pleuritis cannot be determined and the symptoms usually go away after a few days. A viral infection inflaming the pleura is a likely possibility.

There are many other causes of pleuritis. It can be a symptom of something more serious, such as a pulmonary embolus (a blood clot that travels to the lung), or pneumonia. Almost always there will be other symptoms, not just chest pain with a deep breath.

Any of these additional symptoms require immediate medical evaluation or at least an immediate call for medical advice:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Lightheadedness
  • Loss of consciousness (passing out)

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