Chest Drain

A chest drain empties air, blood or fluid from the space surrounding your lungs, called the pleural space.

What is a chest drain?
Why do I need a chest drain?
What are the risks of having a chest drain?
How do I prepare for a chest drain?
What happens during a chest drain procedure?
What happens after a chest drain procedure?

What is a chest drain?

A chest drain procedure (or pleural drain procedure) drains air, blood or fluid through a tube that is inserted into the space surrounding your lungs, called the pleural space.

Why do I need a chest drain?

Fluid or air can build up in the pleural space after surgery or when there is inflammation, infection or a traumatic injury to the lungs. Sometimes, air can build up quickly for no clear reason. This is known as a spontaneous pneumothorax.

You may need a chest drain if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Bleeding around your lung due to recent trauma (eg car accident)
  • Collapsed lung – called a pneumothorax
  • Fluid build up due to a condition such as cancer or pneumonia - called a pleural effusion
  • Fungal infection.

You may also need a chest drain before or after lung surgery. 

Below, you can watch a short video from one of our doctors explaining more about chest drains.


Below, you can watch an animation explaining what happens during a chest drain procedure.

What are the risks of having a chest drain?

Risks of having a chest drain are rare and can include:

  • Bleeding – a small amount of bleeding can occur if a blood vessel is damaged when the chest tube is inserted
  • Infection – the use of sterile tools during the procedure helps reduce this risk
  • Injury – the lung, diaphragm or stomach may be injured during the procedure
  • Pain during the procedure – your doctor will give you pain relief medication
  • Problems with the drainage system – there could be a kink in tubing, leaking drain or a displaced tube
  • Surgical emphysema – when air escapes into spaces under the skin.

How do I prepare for a chest drain?

Chest drains are mostly inserted during an emergency or after surgery, so often there’s no way to prepare. 

You may need some tests before the procedure, including:

What happens during a chest drain procedure?

During a chest drain procedure:

  • You will be lying on a bed, slightly up and to the side, with one arm raised above your head (sometimes you may be positioned sitting upright and leaning forward)
  • Your doctor will clean the area where the tube will be inserted
  • You will be given a local anaesthetic to numb the area
  • The doctor will make a small cut between the ribs. The cut is usually made between the 5th and 6th rib - in line with the nipple, and slightly in front of the armpit on the affected side
  • The doctor will then, very gently, guide a plastic tube into the pleural space
  • The doctor may apply a stitch and dressing to keep the tube in place
  • The tube will be attached to a one-way drainage system that only allows air and fluid to flow out from the pleural space to help expand your lung
  • When all excess fluid or air is drained from the pleural space, and the lung is fully expanded, the tube can be removed.

The chest tube usually stays in for a few days – during this time, you will remain in the hospital. Sometimes your drain will be attached to suction on the wall which may limit your movement away from your bed.

Removing the chest drain

When your doctor is sure that no more fluid or air needs to be drained, the chest tube will be removed. Removing the drain can cause some brief discomfort, and you will be given pain relief before the tube is removed.

Your doctor will remove the stitch holding the tube in place and ask you slowly breathe in and out for a few breaths. You will need to hold your breath while your nurse quickly removes the drain and applies a dressing to seal the cut.

What happens after a chest drain procedure?

After your procedure, you will have an X-ray to make sure that there is no more excess fluid or air in the space surrounding your lungs.

When you return home, you may notice some pain from the cut in your chest. The pain should go away in 1-2 weeks. You will need to see your doctor a few days after your procedure to remove the dressing. Your wound may take up to 4 weeks to heal completely, and it may leave a small scar.  

You should also call your doctor if you:

  • Are coughing up blood
  • Are having trouble breathing
  • Have a fever
  • Have any redness, swelling or any discharge from the insertion site.

If you are planning air travel after your procedure, you will need to speak with your medical team. Airlines have guidelines to assess your fitness to fly. You can view these guidelines in our travel section

You will also need to speak with your medical team before participating in activities such as scuba diving or contact sports.

Finally, always contact your doctor or a member of your medical team if you ever have questions about your procedure or recovery.