Pericarditis occurs when the membrane that surrounds the heart and its major blood vessels becomes inflamed. In most cases, the cause is not known. It can be caused by a virus, a heart attack, or a chest injury. It also can be caused by another type of illness. Pericarditis causes sharp chest pain. This pain gets worse when you lie down or take a deep breath. The pain gets better if you lean forward or sit up.
Pericarditis often heals on its own. It usually does not cause any more problems. Most people get better within a couple of weeks.
What are the symptoms of pericarditis?
The main symptom is a sharp pain in the center or left side of your chest. The pain may spread to the shoulder blade. For some people, this pain is dull instead of sharp. It may be worse when you lie down or take a deep breath. The pain usually gets better if you lean forward or sit up.
Other symptoms may include a mild fever, weakness, and feeling very tired.
Pericarditis usually isn't dangerous. But your chest pain could be caused by something more serious, like a heart attack. Getting diagnosed and treated early can help keep pericarditis from leading to other problems. That's why you should call a doctor right away if you have any kind of sudden chest pain.
What causes pericarditis?
Many things can cause pericarditis, including:
- Viral infection. This is the most common cause.
- Heart attack.
- Chest injury.
- Recent heart surgery.
- Certain diseases, such as cancer, lupus, or tuberculosis.
In many cases, the cause is not known.
How is pericarditis diagnosed?
Your doctor will listen to your heart during a physical exam. The doctor will also ask questions about your medical history, such as whether you've had a recent illness, radiation treatment for cancer, or tuberculosis. Your doctor may want you to have some tests, including an echocardiogram, electrocardiogram, chest X-ray, and blood tests.
How is pericarditis treated?
If there are no other problems, pericarditis usually goes away on its own in a couple of weeks. During this time:
- Your doctor may prescribe a medicine to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Medicines may include a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as aspirin or ibuprofen, or another type of medicine called colchicine. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
- Get plenty of rest. Avoid exercise and strenuous activity. Ask your doctor when you can be active again.
- Follow your doctor's advice about what problems to watch for, such as shortness of breath or other signs of complications.
Be sure to keep all follow-up appointments with your doctor. If you have complications or the illness gets worse, you may need further treatment. This could include medicines or a procedure to relieve the fluid and pressure around your heart (pericardiocentesis).
When to Call
Pericarditis: When to call
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:
- You have severe trouble breathing.
- You passed out (lost consciousness).
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
- You are dizzy or lightheaded, or you feel like you may faint.
- You have trouble breathing.
- You have a new or higher fever.
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
- You do not get better as expected.
How can you care for pericarditis?
- Watch for the return of your symptoms. Sometimes pericarditis can come back after it has gone away.
- Be safe with medicines. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
- Ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Read and follow all instructions on the label.
- Do not take two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to. Many pain medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
- Get plenty of rest until you feel better, especially if you have a fever.
- Avoid exercise and strenuous activity that has not been approved by your doctor. Ask your doctor when you can be active again.
Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.