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

The main sign 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 usually worsens when lying down.

Pericarditis is not usually a serious condition and can often be treated on an outpatient basis, so you do not 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)
  • 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, it is usually suspected that an infection, either viral or bacterial, is 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 natural defence system (the immune system) may also have 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 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.

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 adults.

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 and nausea.

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.

Page last reviewed: 02/11/2012

Next review due: 02/11/2014