To assess the value of sonography in determining the nature of pleural effusions, we prospectively analyzed the sonographic findings in 320 patients with pleural effusion of various causes (224 with exudates and 96 with transudates). The nature of the effusions was established on the basis of chemical, bacteriologic, and cytologic examination of pleural fluid; pleural biopsy; and clinical follow-up. All patients had high-frequency, real-time sonography performed by one of three sonographers who had no clinical information concerning the patients. The sonographer evaluated the images for internal echogenicity of the effusion, thickness of the pleura, and associated parenchymal lesions of the lung. The images were also printed out and interpreted a second time by the other two sonographers to reach a consensus. Our results showed that the two types of effusions could be distinguished on the basis of sonographic findings. Transudates were anechoic, whereas an anechoic effusion could be either a transudate or an exudate. Pleural effusions with complex septated, complex nonseptated, or homogeneously echogenic patterns were always exudates (p less than .01). Sonographic findings of thickened pleura and associated parenchymal lesions in the lung also were indicative of an exudate (p less than .01). Homogenous echogenic effusions were due to hemorrhagic effusion or empyema. Sonographic evidence of a pleural nodule was a specific finding in patients with a malignant effusion. We conclude that sonography is useful in determining the nature of pleural effusion.