Pericarditis is an infection of the pericardium – the thin, protective sac that surrounds the heart. Pericarditis can come on suddenly or be chronic, developing over a long period of time.

The pericardium has an inner and outer layer and can become inflamed if blood or fluid leaks between these layers. It is often associated with pericardial effusion – the build-up of fluid within the structures.

CausesPericarditis can have many causes and variations in the condition. Pericarditis can be caused by any of the following:

  • A heart attack or surgery
  • A viral or bacterial infection (such as the flu)
  • Another inflammatory condition (such as rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Kidney failure
  • Inflammation of the heart muscle (myocardium) rubbing against the pericardium

SymptomsPericarditis symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain, which may worsen when swallowing
  • Neck pain that can extend across the shoulders and arms
  • Intermittent fever
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness
  • Sudden shortness of breath
  • Pain that lessens or goes away entirely if sitting forward, which allows the heart to relax within the chest cavity

Diagnosis In order to diagnose pericarditis, your doctor will take a detailed medical history and listen to your heart during an examination. Your doctor may be able to hear a pericardial rub – a scratchy or grating noise. This can often be heard in a small section but can change position. It is easier to hear while leaning forward and holding your breath.

TreatmentTreatments for pericarditis depend on the cause and may include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Painkillers or aspirin
  • Medication such as Colchicine – a prescription drug that reduces swelling
  • Surgery if necessary, called a pericardial window – used to drain the sac surrounding the heart