Pericarditis Symptoms and Causes

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Pericarditis is a condition characterized by the pericardium being irritated and swollen. The pericardium surrounds the heart and is a sac-like, thin membrane. This condition is typically acute, but can be chronic in some cases. In 2004, 65 deaths were related to acute pericarditis in the United States. Being able to recognize pericarditis symptoms and causes may help in preventing the long-term and potentially dangerous complications. Men between 20 and 50 years of age are most often affected.


The cause of this condition is typically difficult to determine. For most patients, the cause cannot either be determined or a viral infection is suspected. This condition can also occur after a patient has a major heart attack. If the onset of this condition is delayed after a patient has heart surgery or a heart attack, for several weeks, it could be due to antibody formation. This is known as Dressler’s syndrome. It is believed that this syndrome occurs due to an autoimmune response. Other causes of this condition may include:

  • Systemic inflammatory disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
  • Certain medications (this is unusual), such as immunosuppressants
  • Trauma to the patient’s chest or heart
  • Kidney failure
  • Tuberculosis
  • HIV infection and AIDS
  • Cancer, including leukemia
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Bacterial infections
  • Viral infections, most commonly coxsackie virus, echovirus, or less commonly influenza
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Rheumatic fever
  • Radiation therapy targeting the chest area
  • Respiratory infections
  • Adenovirus
  • Myocarditis
  • Some fungal infections


Pericarditis symptoms will vary among patients. Chest pain is the most common symptom of acute pericarditis and shortness of breath is the most common symptom of chronic pericarditis. Overall, signs and symptoms may include:

  • Shortness of breath when in a reclined position
  • Weakness
  • Feeling ill or generally unwell
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal or leg swelling
  • Low-grade fever
  • Dry cough
  • Piercing, sharp chest pain located on the left side or center of the patient’s chest
  • Anxiety


Complications may occur with this condition. Possible complications may include:

  • Cardiac tamponade: This condition occurs when too much fluid accumulates in the pericardium. This extra fluid results in pressure on the heart which can cause it to not fill properly. This can result in less blood leaving the heart, causing blood pressure to drop dramatically. If this condition is not treated, it can be fatal
  • Arrhythmias
  • Constructive pericarditis, sometimes resulting in heart failure


Mild cases may get better on their own, while other cases could be life-threatening. Poor heart function and significant fluid buildup can further complicate this condition.

If this condition is treated promptly, the outcome is most often good. Most patients will recover in two weeks to three months. However, this condition can recur.

Resources (2009). Pericarditis. Retrieved on September 14, 2010 from

MedlinePlus. (2010). Pericarditis. Retrieved on September 24, 2010 from MedlinePlus: