On the basis of both experimental and clinical studies it is not clear whether left, right, or biventricular heart failure are necessary for the formation of pleural effusions. In order to study the relationship of pulmonary hemodynamics and the presence of pleural effusions in patients with congestive heart failure, we prospectively evaluated 37 patients admitted to the coronary care unit with congestive heart failure secondary to ischemic heart disease or a cardiomyopathy. We used real-time ultrasonography to document the presence of pleural effusions. We found that 19 of the 37 patients with heart failure had pleural effusions. Mean pulmonary artery wedge pressure was 24.1 +/- 1.3 mmHg (SE) in the 19 patients with pleural effusions versus 17.2 +/- 1.5 mmHg (SE) (p less than 0.001) in the 18 patients without pleural effusions. Pulmonary artery pressure was also higher in patients with pleural effusions with a mean value of 38.0 +/- 1.5 mmHg (SE) versus 30.7 +/- 2.1 mmHg (SE) (p less than 0.05) in the patients without pleural effusions. In contrast, mean right atrial pressure was not different between patients with pleural effusions (12.6 +/- 1.5 mmHg) (SE) versus those without pleural effusions (9.8 +/- 1.0 mmHg) (SE) (p = NS). In addition, there was no difference in cardiac output, pulmonary vascular resistance, or total protein concentrations between patients with and without pleural effusions. We conclude that, in patients with congestive heart failure, an elevated left atrial pressure is closely correlated with the presence of pleural effusions, while concurrent elevation of right atrial pressure is not associated with the presence of pleural effusions.