What is Pericarditis?

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Pericarditis refers to inflammation of the pericardium, two thin layers of a sac-like tissue that surround the heart, hold it in place and help 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 911 right away because you may be having a heart attack. Learn about warning signs for a heart attack.

Overview

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, other medical conditions, 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 develops over time and may take longer to treat.

Both types of pericarditis can disrupt your heart’s normal rhythm or function. In rare cases, pericarditis can have very serious consequences, even leading to death.

Outlook

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

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. 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, like 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 20 to 50 years old are more likely to develop pericarditis than others.

Among those treated for acute pericarditis, 15 to 30 percent may experience the condition again, with a small number eventually developing chronic pericarditis.

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Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services(link opens in new window)