What Is Pericarditis?

Your heart is surrounded by a sac or membrane called the pericardium. Pericarditis is swelling or irritation of the membrane.

It’s important to treat pericarditis right away. Immediate treatment can rule out other conditions, like a heart attack. Doctors also need to treat the underlying cause, which may reduce the risk of long-term effects.

At Aurora Health Care, our cardiac experts are available at 15 locations throughout Wisconsin and northern Illinois to help you identify and treat heart conditions like pericarditis. We have the expertise and the technology to quickly diagnose your condition and help you feel better, fast.


Symptoms of Pericarditis

The primary symptom of pericarditis is sharp, stabbing chest pain. You may find that:

  • The pain comes on quickly, in the middle or left side of your chest.
  • Pain may extend into your shoulders, neck or back.
  • Chest pain may ease when sitting up and leaning forward.
  • Pain might worsen when lying down.

In some people, the chest pain may feel like a heart attack. In these cases, call 911.

Other pericarditis symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Weakness
  • Heart palpitations, or the feeling that the heartbeat is fast or fluttering
  • Trouble breathing, especially when lying down
  • Dry cough
  • Swelling in abdomen or legs

Risk Factors

Risk Factors for Pericarditis

Pericarditis can affect people of all ages, but men ages 20 to 50 are more likely to develop it.

In many cases, the cause of pericarditis remains unknown. However, some factors are known to trigger pericarditis:

  • Recovery from a heart attack
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Trauma or injury from an accident
  • Some bacterial, viral and fungal infections
  • Kidney failure
  • Rarely, certain medications such as phenytoin to treat seizures and procainamide to treat irregular heartbeats


Diagnosing Pericarditis

Your doctor will diagnose pericarditis based on a physical exam and your medical history.

To confirm the diagnosis, we may recommend certain tests:

  • Chest X-ray: A chest X-ray allows us to examine the internal structures of your chest.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: A CT scan creates detailed images of your heart using a series of X-rays.
  • Ultrasound testing: This test uses sound waves to create a detailed picture of the soft organs in your chest, including your heart. An echocardiogram (echo test) is another type of ultrasound.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): An EKG records the rhythm of your heart.
  • Laboratory testing: We may use laboratory testing to check your blood for signs of infection.
  • Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A cardiac MRI lets us study your heart while it is moving. Learn more about this type of radiographic testing.

Learn more about heart and vascular diagnosis and testing at Aurora.


Pericarditis Treatment

Many cases of pericarditis are mild and clear up fairly easily. We may recommend rest and medication for pain and inflammation, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Your doctor may also prescribe an antibiotic or antifungal medication.

If initial treatment does not heal the pericarditis, or if the condition is more advanced, you may need other care. This treatment may include:

  • Intravenous or oral steroids
  • Other anti-inflammatory medications
  • Pericardiocentesis: A procedure to remove fluid from the pericardium, the sac that surrounds the heart
  • Pericardectomy: A procedure to remove the pericardium entirely, usually reserved for extreme cases

Pericarditis can occur repeatedly over many years. Chronic inflammation of the pericardium can cause scarring, a condition known as constrictive pericarditis.

Constrictive pericarditis can cause the pericardium’s layers to fuse together. This change restricts the heart from expanding as it fills with blood, causing heart failure symptoms. Diuretics (sometimes called water pills) may be prescribed to relieve these symptoms.

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