What is pericarditis?

Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, the thin sac (membrane) that surrounds the heart.

The pericardium holds the heart in place and helps it work properly. There is a small amount of fluid between the inner and outer layers of the pericardium. This fluid keeps the layers from rubbing as the heart moves to pump blood.

What causes pericarditis?

Usually, the cause of pericarditis is unknown, but may include: 

  • Infection (by viruses, bacteria, a fungus, or parasites)
  • Autoimmune disorders (such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or scleroderma)
  • Inflammation after a heart attack
  • Chest  injury
  • Cancer
  • Tuberculosis (TB)
  • Kidney failure
  • Medical treatments (such as certain medicines or radiation therapy to the chest)
  • Heart surgery

What are the symptoms of pericarditis?

The following are the most common signs of pericarditis:

  • Chest pain that:
    • Can especially be felt behind the breastbone, and sometimes beneath the clavicle (collarbone), neck, and left shoulder
    • Is a sharp, piercing pain over the center or left side of the chest that gets worse when you take a deep breath and usually gets better if you sit up or lean forward
    • Feels a lot like a heart attack
  • Fever
  • Weakness and tiredness
  • Coughing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Palpitations (irregular heartbeats)

The symptoms of pericarditis may look like other conditions. See a healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is pericarditis diagnosed?

If your healthcare provider suspects pericarditis, he or she will listen to your heart very carefully. A common sign of pericarditis is a pericardial rub. This is the sound of the pericardium rubbing against the outer layer of your heart. Other chest sounds that are signs of fluid in the pericardium (pericardial effusion) or the lungs (pleural effusion) may also be heard.

Along with a complete medical history and physical exam, tests used to diagnose pericarditis may include:

  • Echocardiogram (echo). This test uses sound waves to check your heart’s size and shape. The echo sound waves create a picture on a screen as an ultrasound transducer is passed over the skin over the heart. Echo can show how well your heart is working and whether fluid has built up around your heart.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG). This test records the strength and timing of the electrical activity of the heart. It shows abnormal rhythms and can sometimes detect heart muscle damage. Small sensors are taped to your skin to pick up the electrical activity.
  • Chest X-ray. An X-ray may be done to check your lungs and see if your heart is enlarged.
  • Cardiac MRI. This is an imaging test that takes detailed pictures of the heart. It may be used to look for thickening or other changes in the pericardium.
  • Cardiac CT. This type of X-ray takes a clear, detailed picture of your heart and pericardium. It may be used to help rule out other causes of chest pain.
  • Blood tests. Certain blood tests can help rule out other heart problems, such as heart attack, and can tell the doctor how much inflammation there is in your pericardium.