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Heart Health Library


Heart Conditions in Adults - Pericarditis

What is pericarditis?

Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, the thin sac (membrane) that surrounds the heart. There is a small amount of fluid between the inner and outer layers of the pericardium. Often, when the pericardium becomes inflamed, the amount of fluid between its two layers increases, causing a pericardial effusion. If the amount of fluid increases quickly, the effusion caused can impair the ability of the heart to function properly. A complication of pericarditis, which is a serious condition, is called cardiac tamponade.

What are the symptoms of pericarditis?

The following are the most common indicators of pericarditis. However, individuals may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain that:
    • Can especially be felt behind the breastbone, sometimes felt beneath the clavicle (collarbone), neck, and left shoulder.
    • Is a sharp, piercing pain over the center or left side of the chest that increases if the person takes a deep breath and usually decreases if the person sits up or leans forward.
  • Fever
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heart beats)

The symptoms of pericarditis may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

What causes pericarditis?

Usually, the cause of pericarditis is unknown, but may include any or all of the following:

  • Heart attack
  • Infection (viral, bacterial, fungal, parasitic)
  • Chest trauma or injury
  • Cancer, tuberculosis, or kidney failure 
  • Autoimmune disorders (i.e., systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma)
  • Medical therapies (certain medications, radiation therapy)
  • Heart surgery

Treatment for pericarditis

Specific treatment will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Cause of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

The goal of treatment for pericarditis is to determine and eliminate the cause of the disease. Treatment may include:

  • Medication (i.e., analgesics, anti-inflammatory drugs, or antibiotics)
  • Aspiration or removal of excess fluid
  • Surgery

Pericarditis may last from two to six weeks, and there may be a recurrence of the disorder.

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