OBJECTIVE: Diffuse pleural thickening (DPT) refers to extensive visceral pleural fibrosis with adhesion formation to the parietal pleura obliterating the pleural space. The radiological definition of DPT remains controversial with most of the literature requiring the presence of an obliterated costophrenic angle (CPA) for defining DPT. We conducted a study to investigate the variable distributions of DPT and associated lung function deficit. METHODS: 85 patients referred to a pleural clinic with suspected pleural thickening were screened for our study. Data were collected from 37 patients with DPT confirmed on CT by size criteria (≥3 mm thick, ≥5 cm wide and ≥8 cm in length), and 21 controls with pleural plaques but no other pleuroparenchymal pathology. 27 patients were excluded. Groups were matched to age, body mass index and smoking history. RESULTS: The percentage of predicted forced vital capacity showed a gradual decline from 98.9% for the control group to 83.5% in the DPT without CPA obliteration group (p < 0.05), to 79.5% in the unilateral DPT group (p < 0.001) and 66.7% in the bilateral group (p < 0.001). Similar reductions were seen in the percentage of predicted total lung capacity in the DPT with no CPA obliteration group and the bilateral DPT group. CONCLUSION: Our study shows an incremental reduction in the forced vital capacity and total lung capacity in DPT without CPA obliteration, unilateral and bilateral DPT when compared with a matched control group. ADVANCES IN KNOWLEDGE: Different distributions of DPT including no CPA obliteration can cause respiratory impairment, with bilateral DPT being the worst affected.