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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. This is called a pericardial effusion. If the amount of fluid increases quickly, the effusion can impair the ability of the heart to function properly. This complication of pericarditis is called cardiac tamponade and is a serious emergency.

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

  • Palpitations (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:

  • Infection (viral, bacterial, fungal, parasitic)

  • Autoimmune disorders (i.e., systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma)

  • Inflammation after a heart attack

  • Chest trauma or injury

  • Cancer, tuberculosis, or kidney failure  

  • Medical therapies (certain medications, radiation therapy) 

  • Heart surgery

Treatment for pericarditis

Your health care provider will determine your specific treatment, based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Severity 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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