Chylothorax in children: guidelines for diagnosis and management

Chest. 1999 Sep;116(3):682-7. doi: 10.1378/chest.116.3.682.


Study objective: To establish guidelines for the diagnosis and management of chylothorax in children.

Design: Retrospective study.

Patients: Fifty-one patients with a diagnosis of chylothorax. Twelve patients were excluded because of incomplete data or incorrect diagnosis. The following parameters were analyzed: triglyceride level, total cell number, and lymphocyte percentage; amount of pleural effusion on day of diagnosis, day 5, and day 14; and total time of pleural effusion. Prospectively, the same parameters were analyzed in a control group of 10 patients with pleural drainage.

Intervention: Patients with chylothorax were treated primarily with fat-free oral nutrition; if chyle did not stop, total parenteral nutrition with total enteric rest was started. If conservative therapy was not successful, pleurodesis was performed.

Results: In children with chylothorax triglyceride, triglyceride content ranged from 0.56 to 26.6 mmol/L; all values except one were > 1.1 mmol/L. In 36 of 39 patients (92%), the cell count was > 1,000 cells/microL. In 33 of 39 patients (85%), lymphocytes were > 90%. In patients without chylothorax triglyceride, triglyceride levels ranged from 0.1 to 0.71 mmol/L (median, 0.38 mmol/L) and cell count was from 20 to 1400 cells/microL (median, 322 cells/microL), with a maximum of 60% lymphocytes. With fat-free nutrition, chyle disappeared in 29 of 39 patients. Five patients died, and five required pleurodesis.

Conclusions: Pleural effusion in children is chyle when it contains > 1.1 mmol/L triglycerides (with oral fat intake) and has a total cell count > or 1,000 cells/microL, with a lymphocyte fraction > 80%. Chylous effusions usually last long; however, after 6 weeks, the majority of the effusions (29 of 39 patients) had ceased. Late surgical interventions reduce the number of thoracotomies substantially, but can lead to very long hospitalization times. Early surgical interventions (after < 3 weeks) lead to a high number of thoracotomies, but certainly reduce hospitalization time.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Count
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Chylothorax / diagnosis*
  • Chylothorax / etiology
  • Chylothorax / therapy
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Diet, Fat-Restricted
  • Female
  • Food, Formulated
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Pleural Effusion / chemistry
  • Pleural Effusion / cytology
  • Pleural Effusion / diagnosis
  • Postoperative Complications
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Triglycerides / analysis


  • Triglycerides