Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, the protective sac surrounding your heart. The main symptom is chest pain. Pericarditis is not usually a serious condition. But it's important more serious conditions are ruled out, such as a heart attack. If you have chest pain, and feel unwell, phone 999.

Symptoms of pericarditis

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 relieved by sitting forward. The pain is often worse when lying down or breathing in. The pain may spread to the left arm and shoulder, neck or tummy.

Pericarditis is not usually a serious condition. Once diagnosed, it may be treated without needing to be admitted to hospital.

Additional symptoms

Depending on the underlying cause of your pericarditis, and whether the inflammation causes fluid to collect in the pericardial sac, you may also experience:

In some cases, pericarditis occurs along with myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle.

When to seek medical advice

Always seek immediate medical advice if you experience sudden chest pain. Contact your GP or GP out of hours service. If you have chest pain and feel unwell, phone 999.

While most cases of pericarditis are not serious, it's important that other more serious conditions are ruled out, such as a heart attack or a blood clot.

If you are unable to speak to your GP or GP out of hours, visit your local emergency department.

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 pericarditis happens

In most cases of pericarditis, no cause is identified. 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.

How pericarditis is treated

Acute pericarditis can usually be treated with medication to reduce swelling. Antibiotics may be used if there is a bacterial infection.

Cardiac tamponade

In rare cases, pericarditis can trigger a serious complication known as cardiac tamponade. This is a build-up of fluid inside the pericardium.

Cardiac tamponade can cause symptoms such as:

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.

The condition 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.

Who is affected

Pericarditis is quite a common heart condition.

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

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published December 2017

This page is due for review December 2020

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