Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, the thin sac-like membrane around your heart. It becomes swollen and irritated. Pericarditis often causes chest pain and sometimes other symptoms.
Most people with pericarditis need monitoring and treatment to reduce the pain and swelling. If complications develop, surgery may be needed.
Chest pain can be the sign of something more serious, like a heart attack. If you think you may be having a heart attack, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance. If calling triple zero (000) does not work on your mobile phone, try calling 112.
Types of pericarditis
The main types of pericarditis are:
- acute pericarditis — symptoms begin suddenly, but don’t last long
- chronic pericarditis — symptoms develop gradually and persist, or may persist after an acute attack
- recurring pericarditis — repeated attacks of acute pericarditis
What causes pericarditis?
Usually the cause of pericarditis can’t be found. A viral infection is often suspected but is difficult to confirm.
The most common symptom of pericarditis is sharp, piercing chest pain in the centre or left hand of your chest.
Depending on the cause of pericarditis, symptoms may also include:
- low fever
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
- weakness or fatigue
- dry cough
- swelling of the legs or abdomen
Complications of pericarditis can be:
- Constrictive pericarditis — permanent thickening and scarring of the pericardium, which stops the heart beating properly, often leading to severe swelling of the legs and abdomen.
- Cardiac tamponade — a dangerous condition, where too much fluid collects in the pericardium, which puts pressure on the heart and causes blood pressure to drop dramatically. This is life-threatening and requires emergency treatment.
How is pericarditis diagnosed?
Your doctor may perform a physical examination and listen to your heart using a stethoscope. They may also run blood and other tests such as an electrocardiogram (ECG), and suggest that you have a chest x-ray to check the size and shape of your heart, or other imaging such as an echocardiogram (ultrasound), CT scan or MRI scan.
Pericarditis is usually able to be confirmed with a physical examination and electrocardiogram (ECG).
How is pericarditis treated?
Treatment will depend on type of pericarditis you have, and may include:
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce swelling
- antibiotics, if there is a bacterial infection
- colchicine, a prescription-only medicine often used for recurring pericarditis
If an underlying cause is found, it will be treated where possible. You may also be monitored for potential complications. You will also be advised to avoid strenuous activity until your symptoms get better.
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Last reviewed: September 2019