Pericarditis - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Pericarditis compared to a healthy heart

Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, the protective sac that surrounds your heart. 

The pericardium has an inner and outer layer and can become inflamed if blood or fluid leaks between these two layers. It’s often associated with pericardial effusion (build-up of fluid within the structures).

What are the symptoms of pericarditis? 

Symptoms of pericarditis include:
  • chest pain that's similar to a stabbing sensation, which may feel worse when swallowing
  • pain in the neck that may extend across the shoulders and/or arms
  • an intermittent fever
  • nausea
  • light headedness, and
  • in some cases, a sudden onset shortness of breath (if this occurs seek urgent medical attention).

The pain can resolve itself if sitting forward, allowing the heart to relax within the chest cavity. 

What causes pericarditis?

Pericarditis is a complex condition with many variations and causes. A patient may need a physical examination and a doctor will consider their medical history in order for them to be diagnosed with the condition.

Pericarditis can be caused by:

  • a heart attack or surgery
  • following a virus or bacterial infection (such as the flu)
  • another inflammatory condition (such as rheumatoid arthritis)
  • kidney failure, or in rare cases, some form of cancer
  • inflammation of the myocardium (the heart muscle) rubbing against the pericardium.

Sometimes the cause will be unknown.

What tests will I need for pericarditis?

Tests for pericarditis include:

Will I need treatment for pericarditis?

Treatments for pericarditis depend on the cause and may include:

  • anti-inflammatory medication, such as Ibuprofen
  • painkillers or aspirin
  • medication such as Colchicine (a prescription drug that reduces swelling)
  • if symptoms don’t resolve surgery may be necessary – pericardial window (a procedure to drain the sac surrounding the heart) is normally performed to treat and permanently prevent symptoms from persisting or coming back.

What are the long term effects of chronic pericarditis?

Most people recover from Pericarditis quickly, but for some it can take several months or never fully resolve, making long term sufferers vulnerable to physical and psychological issues. This can impact on quality of life for the sufferer and their families.

Unfortunately, pericarditis can come back despite medical or surgical intervention, so patients may uncertain about the future of their health. As this rare condition is not visible or associated with an unhealthy lifestyle, there is often a lack of understanding about the effects of living with pericarditis, meaning sufferers can often feel isolated, causing them to experience other effects such as anxiety, palpitations and panic.

Psychological support for pericarditis

Living with pericarditis can be emotionally challenging for you and your family. It is important to manage anxiety and stress and there are many outlets of support to help you.

You can use the following ways to get mental support for dealing with your condition:

  • Talk to your GP about being referred for counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
  • Utilise The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services across the country.
  • Call us on 0300 330 3311 to speak to one of our nurses on our heart helpline between 9-5, Monday to Friday.
  • Join our online community platform, HealthUnlocked. Members include those who have been affected by the same condition.

Leading the fight against heart disease

The BHF is the largest independent funder of cardiovascular research in the UK. Some highlights of our heart failure research include:

  • Investigating a link between inflammation and atrial fibrillation. Inflammation is a normal part of the body’s response to infection and injury, but is also linked to other diseases, particularly coronary heart disease (CHD), the major cause of heart attacks.
  • Looking at ways that bacteria stick to medical devices, like artificial heart valves, to help us understand how to prevent this happening and reducing the risk of infections.

Find out more about our heart failure research and our most ambitious research programme yet to progress the UK's fight against heart failure – our Mending Broken Hearts appeal.

Our life saving research is powered by your support. Every pound raised, helps make a difference to people's lives. Join our fight for every heartbeat.

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Want to know more?

Order or download our publications:

The front cover of the British Heart Foundation

Heart attack


Heart rhythms booklet

Heart rhythms