What is Pericarditis?

Pericarditis occurs when the pericardium of the heart becomes inflamed. This condition could be acute or chronic, but both forms can disrupt the normal function or rhythm of your heart.

Causes could be fungal, bacterial, or viral, but pericarditis could also be the result of a heart attack, injuries, medications, heart surgery, or other conditions. It often develops following a respiratory infection, but chronic forms could be caused by autoimmune disorders.

What are the Symptoms of Pericarditis?

Acute pericarditis might cause a stabbing, sharp pain in the chest, particularly behind your breastbone or on the left side of the chest. Some patients also describe the pain as being achy, dull, or pressure-like. This pain could then travel to the left shoulder and the neck, and it will usually become more intense if you lie down, breathe deeply, or cough. Leaning forward or sitting up might reduce the pain.

Chronic pericarditis, on the other hand, will cause inflammation and might lead to pericardial effusion. The most common sign of chronic pericarditis is pain in the chest.

Pericarditis Causes

It’s often unclear what causes pericarditis; many people with the condition do not have a history of medical conditions which could have caused the illness. However, in many instances of pericarditis it is infection which is to blame.

Viral, bacterial and fungal infections can all lead to pericarditis. This is because the body often responds to infection by creating an inflammation of tissues in the affected area. Respiratory infections tend to be the most common type of infection to cause pericarditis. When pericarditis becomes chronic or persistently recurs, it’s often a long term medical condition which causes it. Autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and scleroderma are particularly well known causes of chronic pericarditis.

It’s also possible to develop pericarditis as a complication of heart surgery or heart attack. Medications used to treat irregular heartbeats (such as procainamide) and to thin the blood (such as warfarin) can also lead to pericarditis.

In some instances, conditions completely unrelated to the heart can cause pericarditis. Kidney failure, cancer, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDs are all linked with the condition. Some people may also develop it after having radiation therapy on the chest region, or having an accident in which the chest may have been affected.

How is Pericarditis Treated?

Once the cause of the pericarditis is identified, your doctor can prescribe the appropriate treatment.

When caused by a virus, the goal would be to decrease the inflammation and control the pain, so medications like naproxen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or other pain medications might be prescribed.

Antibiotics and antifungal medications, as well as diuretics, may also be helpful, depending upon the cause of the condition.

If there is a buildup of fluid that effects heart function, pericardiocentesis might be used to drain the fluid. The doctor might also cut a small hole within the pericardium to drain the fluid.

A pericardiectomy might be necessary for chronic or recurring cases of pericarditis, or for cases in which tightening or scarring of the tissue surrounding the heart occurs.

Pericarditis Prevention

It isn’t possible to prevent pericarditis since it often occurs as a complication of other medical conditions or infections. However, it may be possible to avoid recurrent episodes of the condition or prevent it from causing further complications.

Getting plenty of rest is vital for people with pericarditis, because the inflammation it causes can affect heart function. Strenuous activity which increases the heart rate can trigger the symptoms associated with pericarditis, and make inflammation worse. For this reason, avoid physical activity as much as possible until your doctor permits it. The amount of time it takes to recover from pericarditis varies depending on the severity of the condition; you may need to rest for as little as a few days in mild cases or up to several weeks for more severe cases.