What Is Pericarditis?

father and daughter reading book

Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, a sac-like structure with two thin layers of tissue that surround the heart to hold it in place and help protect it from damage from infection and malignancy. A small amount of fluid keeps the layers separate so there’s less friction between them as the heart beats.

A common symptom of pericarditis is chest pain, caused by the sac’s layers becoming inflamed and possibly rubbing against the heart. Chest pain from pericarditis can come on suddenly. It is often in the middle or left side of the chest, and there may be pain in one or both shoulders. Unlike pain from a heart attack, chest pain from pericarditis is usually a sharp, stabbing pain.

If you have chest pain, call 911 right away because you may be having a heart attack. Learn about warning signs for a heart attack.


Pericarditis can be attributed to several factors, including viral, bacterial, fungal and other infections. Other possible causes of pericarditis include heart attack or heart surgery, radiation, other medical conditions, such as lung or breast cancer, injuries and medications.

Pericarditis can be acute, meaning it happens suddenly and typically doesn’t last long. Or the condition may be "chronic," meaning that it lasts for longer than three months and may take longer to treat.

Both types of pericarditis can disrupt your heart’s normal function. In rare cases, pericarditis can have very serious consequences.


Pericarditis is frequently mild and may clear up on its own with rest or simple treatment. Sometimes, more intense treatment is needed to prevent complications.

Recovery time from pericarditis may vary depending on the type of condition, the cause and the patient’s health. Consultation with a health care professional can determine this.

Types of pericarditis

  • Acute pericarditis ‒ symptoms last less than four to six weeks.
  • Incessant pericarditis ‒ symptoms last more than four to six weeks but less than three months despite therapy.
  • Chronic pericarditis ‒  symptoms last for more than three months.
  • Recurrent pericarditis ‒ when pericarditis develops for a second time after having no symptoms for at least four weeks.

Causes of pericarditis

The cause of pericarditis is often unknown, though viral infections are a common reason.

Chronic and recurrent pericarditis may be caused by autoimmune disorders such as lupus, scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis. These are 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, such as phenytoin (an anti-seizure medicine), warfarin and heparin (both 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 ages 16 to 65 are more likely to develop it.

Among those treated for acute pericarditis, 15% to 30% may experience the condition again if not treated with the medication colchicine.