What is Pericarditis?

Updated:Feb 2,2016

Heart With BandagePericarditis is a condition in which the membrane, or sac, around your heart is inflamed. This sac is called the pericardium.

The pericardium holds the heart in place and helps it work properly. The sac is made of two thin layers of tissue that enclose your heart. Between the two layers is a small amount of fluid. This fluid keeps the layers from rubbing against each other and causing friction.

In pericarditis, the layers of tissue become inflamed and can rub against the heart. This causes chest pain, a common symptom of pericarditis.

The chest pain from pericarditis may feel like pain from a heart attack. If you have chest pain, you should call 9–1–1 right away, as you may be having a heart attack.

Many factors can cause pericarditis. Viral infections are likely a common cause of pericarditis, although the virus may never be found. Bacterial, fungal, and other infections also can cause pericarditis.

Other possible causes include heart attack or heart surgery, other medical conditions, injuries, and certain medicines. In many cases, the cause is unknown.

Pericarditis can be acute or chronic. "Acute" means that it occurs suddenly and usually doesn't last long. "Chronic" means that it develops over time and may take longer to treat. Both acute and chronic pericarditis can disrupt your heart's normal rhythm and/or function and possibly (although rarely) lead to death. However, most cases of pericarditis are mild; they clear up on their own or with rest and simple treatment. Other times, more intense treatments are needed to prevent complications. Treatments may include medicines and, less often, procedures or surgery.

It may take from a few days to weeks or even months to recover from pericarditis. With proper and prompt treatment, such as rest and ongoing care, most people fully recover from pericarditis. These measures also can help reduce the chances of getting the condition again.

Other Names for Pericarditis

  • Idiopathic pericarditis. This term refers to pericarditis with no known cause.
  • Acute pericarditis.
  • Chronic pericarditis.
  • Chronic effusive pericarditis and chronic constrictive pericarditis. These are forms of chronic pericarditis.
  • Recurrent pericarditis.
What Causes Pericarditis?
In many cases, the cause of pericarditis (both acute and chronic) is unknown. Viral infections are likely a common cause of pericarditis, although the virus may never be found. Pericarditis often occurs after a respiratory infection. Bacterial, fungal, and other infections also can cause pericarditis. Most cases of chronic, or recurring, pericarditis are thought to be the result of autoimmune disorders. Examples of such disorders include lupus, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis. With autoimmune disorders, the body's immune system makes antibodies (proteins) that mistakenly attack the body's tissues or cells.

Other possible causes of pericarditis are:

  • Heart attack and heart surgery
  • Kidney failure, HIV/AIDS, cancer, tuberculosis, and other health problems
  • Injuries from accidents or radiation therapy
  • Certain medicines, like phenytoin (an antiseizure medicine), warfarin and heparin (blood-thinning medicines), and procainamide (a medicine to treat irregular heartbeats)
Who Is at Risk for Pericarditis?
Pericarditis occurs in people of all ages. However, men aged 20 to 50 are more likely to develop it than others.

People who are treated for acute pericarditis may get it again. This may happen in 15 to 30 percent of people who have the condition. A small number of these people go on to develop chronic pericarditis.

Also in this section:
Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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