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Pericarditis is a viral infection in the pericardium, the sac surrounding your heart.

Most often it doesn't cause serious complications. Sometimes, fluid buildup or thickening of the sac can occur.

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What Is Pericarditis?

Pericarditis is a condition in which the pericardium, or the sac that surrounds your heart, swells and becomes irritated.

Types of pericarditis

Pericarditis can be:

  • Acute, which means it comes on suddenly and resolves on its own.
  • Chronic, which means it comes on slowly and can take longer to go away.

Pericarditis causes and risk factors

A viral infection is the most common cause of pericarditis. It may happen after you have a viral illness, such as the flu or bronchitis.

Other pericarditis causes include:

  • Heart attack
  • Chest injury
  • Heart surgery
  • Some autoimmune disorders

Complications of pericarditis

Most often, this infection doesn't cause serious complications, and symptoms resolve within a week or two.

Some pericarditis complications include:

  • Fluid buildup around the heart.
  • Sudden pressure on the heart, making it hard to pump enough blood.
  • Constrictive pericarditis, a thickening of the sac around the heart.

Pericarditis Symptoms and Diagnosis

Pericarditis symptoms

The main symptom of pericarditis is a sharp, stabbing chest pain. It may be in the center or left side of the chest and can spread to the shoulder.

The pain can last for hours or days.

It doesn't get better when you rest as it does with chest pain from angina. Lying down and deep breathing can make the pain worse.

Pericarditis can also cause the same symptoms as other viral infections, such as:

  • Fever
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue

Although the pain can be scary, pericarditis isn't dangerous for most people, and the symptoms resolve on their own.

If you're worried the chest pain is a heart attack, seek care right away.

Diagnosing pericarditis

Your doctor will perform a physical exam, listening to your heart and asking questions about your recent health history.

He or she may also order tests to confirm a pericarditis diagnosis, such as:

Pericarditis Treatment

If caused by a viral infection and you have no other problems, pericarditis treatment includes rest and — if needed — pain medicine. Antibiotics don't work on viral infections.

Your doctor may suggest a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug — like ibuprofen or aspirin — to lessen the chest pain and reduce swelling.

For severe pain, your doctor may prescribe a drug called colchicine.

For most people, pericarditis resolves on its own with rest.

If your symptoms don't get better within a few weeks, see your doctor for a follow-up. He or she may prescribe other treatments if you have any complications.