Empyema and complicated pleural effusion represent common medical problems. Current treatment options are multiple. The purpose of this study was to access the outcome of image-guided, small-bore catheter drainage of empyema and effusion. We evaluated 93 small-bore catheters in 82 patients with pleural effusion (n = 30) or empyema (n = 52), over a 2-year period. Image guidance was with ultrasound (US; n = 56) and CT (n = 37). All patients were followed clinically, with catheter dwell times, catheter outcome, pleural fluid outcome, reinsertion rates, and need for urokinase or surgery recorded. Ninety-three small-bore chest drains (mean=10.2 Fr; range, 8.2-12.2 Fr) were inserted, with an average dwell time of 7.81 days for empyemas and 7.14 days for effusions (p > 0.05). Elective removal rates (73% empyema vs 86% effusions) and dislodgement rates (12% empyema vs 13% effusions) were similar for both groups. Eight percent of catheters became blocked and 17% necessitated reinsertion in empyemas, with no catheters blocked or requiring reinsertion in effusions (p < 0.05). Thirty-two patients (51%) required urokinase in the empyema group, versus 2 patients (6%) in the effusion group (p < 0.05). All treatment failures, requiring surgery, occurred in the empyema group (19%; n = 12; p < 0.05). In conclusion, noninfected pleural collections are adequately treated with small-bore catheters, however, empyemas have a failure rate of 19%. The threshold for using urokinase and larger-bore catheters should be low in empyema.