Subpleural sparing: Clinical, physiological, and radiological implications

Am J Med Sci. 2023 Mar;365(3):219-225. doi: 10.1016/j.amjms.2022.11.002. Epub 2022 Nov 23.


The term "subpleural sparing" refers to computed tomography (CT) images that indicate that there is limited disease/infiltrate in the immediate subpleural location. This observation is often associated with nonspecific interstitial pneumonitis and is a characteristic that distinguishes this pathology from usual interstitial pneumonitis (idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis). Subpleural sparing can also occur in acute respiratory disorders, including pulmonary contusion in children, acute lung disease associated with electronic cigarettes (vaping), and aspiration of exogenous lipids. Potential explanations for this observation include nonuniform distribution of lung injury/inflammation, nonuniform clearing/resolution of injury, and variations in CT image acquisition and presentation. The subpleural region contains lymphatic structures on the interior surface of the visceral pleura and in interlobular septa. The density of subpleural lymphatics decreases in more interior zones of the lung that largely contain alveolar-capillary units. These lymphatics transfer fluid and other inflammatory mediators from the peripheral lung into central lymphatics and veins. Consequently, the density and distribution of lymphatics could explain preferential clearing of the subpleural regions during acute injury. The acquisition of CT images also depends on the configuration of detectors, slice thickness, and the energy of the electron beam. Clinicians should carefully consider the disease process, lymphatic function and other clearance mechanisms, and the vagaries in CT image acquisition when they evaluate patients with subpleural sparing.

Keywords: Computed tomography; Lymphatic function; Lymphatic structure; Subpleural sparing.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Child
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems*
  • Humans
  • Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis* / pathology
  • Lung / diagnostic imaging
  • Lung / pathology
  • Lung Diseases* / diagnostic imaging
  • Lung Diseases* / pathology
  • Lung Injury*
  • Lymphatic Vessels* / pathology