Pericarditis is an inflammation (irritation and swelling) of the pericardium, the thin sac that surrounds the heart. Extra fluid that builds up between the two layers of the pericardium restricts the heart’s action.
The cause of pericarditis is often unknown. However, possible causes include:
- Viral, bacterial, or fungal infection
- Heart attack
- Inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
- Cancer that has spread from a tumor near the heart
- Kidney failure
- Injury or surgery affecting the chest, esophagus (food pipe), or heart
- Radiation treatment
- Certain medications used to suppress the immune system
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Risk factors for pericarditis include:
- Weakened immune system that is not able to fight off infections and other diseases
- Any of the causes listed above
Chest pain is a common symptom of pericarditis, especially over the left side or center of the chest. Sometimes it spreads to the neck and left shoulder. It is usually a sharp, stabbing pain. Deep breathing or lying down may worsen the pain. Sitting up may lessen it. Other symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Fever and chills
- Pain when swallowing
- Weakness and fatigue
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam. The doctor will use a stethoscope to listen for a grating or rubbing sound in your heart. If the condition is severe, there may be a crackle sound in your lungs. The following tests may be performed:
- Chest x-ray (to show heart size and buildup of fluid)
- Electrocardiograph (ECG or EKG, to show electrical activity of the heart)
- Echocardiogram (to show heart wall motion, heart size, and buildup of fluid)
- Blood tests (to help determine causes)
- Pericardiocentesis (drawing a sample of the fluid in the pericardium using a needle to test the fluid for infections)
- Heart or chest MRI or CT scan (if more detailed images are needed)
Treating pericarditis depends on the cause, if the cause is known. In many cases, when the cause is unknown or viral pericarditis is suspected, pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications are given. In other cases, corticosteroids may be given. If the condition is caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics are used.
Diuretics may be used to remove extra fluid from the pericardium. If the fluid is seriously affecting the heart’s pumping, it may need to be removed through pericardiocentesis (the same procedure used for testing). In rare cases, surgery may be performed.
Depending on the cause of the pericarditis the illness can range from mild to life-threatening. Acute inflammatory pericarditis usually subsides with treatment within a few weeks or months. However, pericarditis caused by chronic inflammatory diseases like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, may last longer or tend to recur.
There is no known way to prevent pericarditis.