Both in saltwater and freshwater drowning cases, a common autopsy sign is pleural effusion. However, the factors that determine the amount of pleural effusion have not been well established. An attempt was therefore made to correlate the amount of pleural fluid in bodies recovered from water with several parameters registered on the judicial files as well as autopsy findings from the years 1994-1998. The number of cases with pleural fluid increase was found to be very high in saltwater drowning (P < 0.001). But, when the freshwater and saltwater drowning cases with pleural fluid increase were compared according to pleural fluid amount, no significant difference was detected (521 +/- 340 and 768 +/- 536 ml, respectively). Although there was a positive correlation between the decomposition degree and the fluid in the pleural cavity, a relative decrease was detected in the amount of effusion contrary to the expectations in cases of extreme decomposition. Pleural fluid amount provides significant data about the type of water and the cause of death in early postmortem interval. And there is a link between the time spent in water and the amount of pleural effusion. With the advance of the postmortem interval, decomposition level and the duration of immersion should be taken into account in differential diagnosis. (C) 2003 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.