Pericarditis is swelling of the pericardium, which is the fluid-filled sac surrounding your heart.

The main symptom of pericarditis is chest pain. This can be a sudden, sharp and stabbing pain behind your breastbone or more of a dull ache. The pain is often worse when lying down or breathing in, and better when sitting up.

Pericarditis is not usually a serious condition and may be treated on an outpatient basis, so you don't have to be admitted to hospital.

Read more about the symptoms of pericarditis.

Types of pericarditis

There are three main types of pericarditis:

  • acute pericarditis – where the symptoms last less than three months (with treatment, symptoms normally resolve within a week) and often appear after flu-like symptoms
  • recurring pericarditis – where someone has repeated episodes of acute pericarditis
  • chronic pericarditis – a complication of pericarditis, where the symptoms last longer than three months

Why does pericarditis happen?

In most cases of pericarditis, no cause is identified. However, an infection is usually thought to be responsible.

Other things that may cause pericarditis include chest injury, some cancers and some treatments, such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

Problems with the body's immune system may also play a role in recurring and chronic pericarditis.

Read more about the causes of pericarditis.

How is pericarditis treated?

Acute pericarditis can usually be treated with medication to reduce swelling, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), although antibiotics may be used if there is a bacterial infection.

A medication called colchicine is often used for recurring pericarditis, as it can prevent symptoms returning.

Treatment for chronic pericarditis will depend on the underlying cause. Some cases respond well to medication, while others may require surgery.

Read more about treating pericarditis.

Cardiac tamponade

In rare cases, pericarditis can trigger a serious complication known as cardiac tamponade. This is an excess build-up of fluid inside the pericardium. The extra fluid places too much pressure on the heart, so it is unable to beat properly.

Cardiac tamponade can cause symptoms such as:

  • light-headedness
  • blurred vision
  • palpitations
  • nausea

Cardiac tamponade also often occurs alongside inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis). This causes pain that feels like pressure on the chest, similar to a heart attack.

Cardiac tamponade is life-threatening and requires emergency treatment. If you have a history of pericarditis and develop the symptoms listed above, call 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Read more about the complications of pericarditis.

Who is affected?

Pericarditis is a relatively common heart condition. Around 5% of all admissions to accident and emergency (A&E) departments for severe chest pain are diagnosed as pericarditis.

Pericarditis tends to be more common in men than women. It can affect people of all ages, but mostly occurs in young adults.

Page last reviewed: 03/11/2014

Next review due: 03/11/2016