What is Pericarditis?

Updated:Dec 12,2017

Heart With BandagePericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, two thin layers of a sac-like tissue that surrounds the heart, holds it in place and helps it work. A small amount of fluid keeps the layers separate so that there’s no friction between them.

A common symptom of pericarditis is chest pain, caused by the sac’s layers becoming inflamed and possibly rubbing against the heart. It may feel like pain from a heart attack. If you have chest pain, call 9–1–1 right away because you may be having a heart attack.

Pericarditis can be attributed to other factors, including viral, bacterial, fungal, and other infections. Other possible causes are heart attack or heart surgery, other medical conditions, injuries and medicines.

Pericarditis can be acute, meaning it happens suddenly and typically doesn't last long, or chronic,” meaning it develops over time and may take longer to treat. Both types of pericarditis can disrupt your heart's normal rhythm or function and possibly, though rarely, lead to death. 

Most of the time, pericarditis is mild and clears up on its own with rest or simple treatment. Sometimes, to prevent complications, more intense treatment is needed.

Recovery from pericarditis may take a few days to weeks or even months. 

Other Names for Pericarditis

  • Idiopathic pericarditis (no known cause)
  • Acute pericarditis
  • Chronic pericarditis
  • Chronic effusive pericarditis and chronic constrictive pericarditis (forms of chronic pericarditis)
  • Recurrent pericarditis
Causes of Pericarditis
The cause of pericarditis is often unknown, though viral infections are a common cause. Pericarditis often occurs after a respiratory infection. Chronic, or recurring pericarditis is usually the result of autoimmune disorders such as lupus, scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis, disorders in which the body's immune system makes antibodies 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 affects people of all ages, but men 20 to 50 years old are more likely to develop it than others. Among those treated for acute pericarditis, 15 to 30 percent may get it again, with a small number eventually developing chronic pericarditis.

This content was last reviewed March 2016.

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

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