- Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, the thin, double-layered membrane around your heart.
- The main symptom of pericarditis is sharp chest pain that is worse when lying down or breathing in.
- There are many causes of pericarditis.
What is pericarditis?
Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, the thin, double-layered membrane around your heart. When you have pericarditis, your pericardium becomes swollen and irritated.
Pericarditis often causes sharp, stabbing chest pain.
The main types of pericarditis are:
- acute pericarditis — which lasts less than 4 to 6 weeks
- chronic pericarditis — symptoms last for more than 3 months
- recurrent pericarditis — when new symptoms appear after getting better from an episode of acute pericarditis
What are the symptoms of pericarditis?
The most common symptom of pericarditis is sharp, stabbing chest pain. This is usually in the centre of your chest.
The chest pain is usually worse when you breathe in. It may get better when you sit up and lean forward and get worse when you lie down.
Depending on the cause of your pericarditis, other symptoms may include:
- muscle aches and pains
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
- weakness or fatigue
- dry cough
- swelling of your legs or abdomen (tummy)
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What causes pericarditis?
Pericarditis can be caused by an infection with a virus, bacteria or fungus.
Other causes of pericarditis include:
- autoimmune diseases, such as lupus
- complications after a heart attack
- a heart or chest injury
- some types of cancer
- kidney failure
Often, the cause of pericarditis cannot be found.
Sometimes, certain medicines can cause pericarditis. Pericarditis has been reported as a rare side effect of some COVID-19 vaccines.
When should I see my doctor?
Chest pain can be a sign of something serious. Call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance if your chest pain is severe, getting worse or has lasted for 10 minutes.
Always seek medical attention if you have any type of chest pain.
How is pericarditis diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and overall health. They will perform a physical examination and listen to your heart using a stethoscope.
Your doctor may recommend tests such as:
- blood tests
- an electrocardiogram (ECG)
- a chest x-ray to check the size and shape of your heart
- other imaging tests, such as an echocardiogram (type of ultrasound of your heart), CT scan or MRI scan
Pericarditis is usually confirmed with a physical examination and electrocardiogram (ECG).
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How is pericarditis treated?
Treatment usually includes:
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or aspirin
- colchicine, a prescription-only medicine
Some people with pericarditis need monitoring and treatment in hospital.
If an underlying cause is found, it will be treated where possible. Antibiotics will be given if the cause of your pericarditis is a bacterial infection.
You will also be monitored for complications. If complications develop, surgery may be needed.
You will also be advised to avoid strenuous activity until your symptoms get better.
Complications of pericarditis
Pericardial effusion is when fluid builds up between the 2 layers of your pericardium. It can happen with pericarditis.
Cardiac tamponade is when enough fluid collects in the pericardium to put pressure on your heart and cause your blood pressure to drop dramatically. Cardiac tamponade is life-threatening and requires emergency treatment.
It is possible to develop chronic constrictive pericarditis — thickening and scarring of your pericardium. This can stop your heart beating properly and needs surgical treatment.
Resources and support
You can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: November 2023