Pericarditis is a condition in which the sac-like covering around the heart (pericardium) becomes inflamed.
The cause of pericarditis is unknown or unproven in many cases. It mostly affects men ages 20 to 50.
Pericarditis is often the result of an infection such as:
- Viral infections that cause a chest cold or pneumonia, such as echovirus or coxsackie virus (common in children) and influenza
- Infections with bacteria (less common)
- Some fungal infections (rare)
The condition may be seen with diseases such as:
- Cancer (including leukemia)
- Disorders in which the immune system attacks healthy body tissue by mistake
- HIV infection and AIDS
- Underactive thyroid gland
- Kidney failure
- Rheumatic fever
- Tuberculosis (TB)
Other causes include:
- Heart attack
- Heart surgery or trauma to the chest, esophagus, or heart
- Certain medicines, such as procainamide, hydralazine, phenytoin, isoniazid, and some drugs used to treat cancer or suppress the immune system
- Swelling or inflammation of the heart muscle
- Radiation therapy to the chest
Chest pain is almost always present. The pain:
- May be felt in the neck, shoulder, back, or abdomen
- Often increases with deep breathing and lying flat, and may increase with coughing and swallowing
- Can feel sharp and stabbing
- Is often relieved by sitting up and leaning or bending forward
You may have fever, chills, or sweating if the condition is caused by an infection.
Other symptoms may include:
Exams and Tests
When listening to the heart with a stethoscope, the health care provider can hear a sound called a pericardial rub. The heart sounds may be muffled or distant. There may be other signs of fluid in the pericardium (pericardial effusion).
If the disorder is severe, there may be:
- Crackles in the lungs
- Decreased breath sounds
- Other signs of fluid in the space around the lungs
The following imaging tests may be done to check the heart and the tissue layer around it (pericardium):
- Chest MRI scan
- Chest x-ray
- Heart MRI or heart CT scan
- Radionuclide scanning
To look for heart muscle damage, the health care provider may order a troponin I test. Other laboratory tests may include:
The cause of pericarditis should be identified, if possible.
High doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen are often given. These medicines will decrease your pain and reduce the swelling or inflammation in the sac around your heart.
If pericarditis does not go away after 1 to 2 weeks, or it comes back weeks or months later, a medicine called colchicine may be added.
If the cause of pericarditis is an infection:
- Antibiotics will be used for bacterial infections
- Antifungal medicines will be used for fungal pericarditis
Other medicines that may be used are:
- Corticosteroids such as prednisone (in some patients)
- "Water pills" (diuretics) to remove excess fluid
If the buildup of fluid makes the heart function poorly, treatment may include:
- Draining the fluid from the sac. This procedure, called pericardiocentesis, may be done using an echocardiography-guided needle.
- Cutting a small hole (window) in the pericardium (subxiphoid pericardiotomy) to allow the infected fluid to drain into the abdominal cavity
Surgery called pericardiectomy may be needed if the pericarditis is long-lasting, comes back after treatment, or causes scarring or tightening of the tissue around the heart. The operation involves cutting or removing part of the pericardium.
Pericarditis can range from mild illness that gets better on its own, to a life-threatening condition. Fluid buildup around the heart and poor heart function can complicate the disorder.
The outcome is good if pericarditis is treated right away. Most people recover in 2 weeks to 3 months. However, pericarditis may come back. This is called recurrent, or chronic, if symptoms or episodes continue.
Scarring and thickening of the sac-like covering and the heart muscle may occur when the problem is severe. This is called constrictive pericarditis. It can cause long-term problems similar to those of heart failure.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of pericarditis. This disorder is not life threatening most of the time. However, it can be very dangerous if not treated.
Many cases cannot be prevented.
LeWinter MM, Tischler MD. Pericardial diseases. In: Bonow RO, Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 75.
Reviewed By: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.