Pericarditis is swelling and irritation of the thin, saclike tissue surrounding your heart (pericardium). Pericarditis often causes sharp chest pain and sometimes other symptoms. The chest pain occurs when the irritated layers of the pericardium rub against each other.
Pericarditis is usually mild and goes away without treatment. Treatment for more-severe cases may include medications and, rarely, surgery. Early diagnosis and treatment may help reduce the risk of long-term complications from pericarditis.
The heart on the right shows a heart with pericarditis, in which the membrane (pericardium) that surrounds the heart is swollen and inflamed. The heart on the left shows a heart with a normal pericardium.
Chest pain is the most common symptom of pericarditis. It usually feels sharp or stabbing. However, some people have dull, achy or pressure-like chest pain.
Other signs and symptoms of pericarditis may include:
The specific symptoms you have depend on the type of pericarditis you have. Pericarditis is grouped into different categories, according to the pattern of symptoms and how long symptoms last.
Seek immediate medical care if you develop new symptoms of chest pain.
Many of the symptoms of pericarditis are similar to those of other heart and lung conditions. The sooner you are evaluated, the sooner you can receive proper diagnosis and treatment. For example, although the cause of acute chest pain may be pericarditis, the original cause could have been a heart attack or a blood clot of the lungs (pulmonary embolus).
The cause of pericarditis is often hard to determine. Sometimes, doctors can't find a cause (idiopathic pericarditis).
Pericarditis causes can include:
Early diagnosis and treatment of pericarditis usually reduces the risk of the long-term complications. Complications of pericarditis include:
The doctor will examine you and ask questions about your symptoms and medical history.
During the exam, the doctor will place a stethoscope on your chest to listen to your heart sounds. Pericarditis causes a specific sound, called a pericardial rub. The noise occurs when the two layers of the sac surrounding your heart (pericardium) rub against each other.
Blood tests are usually done to check for signs of a heart attack, inflammation and infection. Other tests used to diagnose pericarditis include:
Treatment for pericarditis depends on the cause and the severity of your symptoms. Mild pericarditis may get better without treatment.
Medications to reduce the inflammation and swelling are often prescribed. Examples include:
If your pericarditis is caused by a bacterial infection, you'll be treated with antibiotics and drainage, if necessary.
If pericarditis causes fluid buildup around the heart, you may need drainage or surgery. Treatments include:
For mild pericarditis, rest and over-the-counter pain medications — taken under your doctor's direction — may be all that's needed.
While you recover, avoid strenuous physical activity and competitive sports. Such activity can trigger pericarditis symptoms. Ask your doctor how long you need to rest.
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or an emergency room physician. If you call to schedule an appointment, you may be referred to a doctor trained in heart conditions (cardiologist).
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
For pericarditis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask additional questions that occur to you during your appointment.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may save time to go over any points you want to talk about in-depth. Your doctor may ask: