How Serious Is Pericarditis?

Pericarditis is a medical condition that affects the pericardium, a sac-like membrane that surrounds the heart and helps to protect it (via the Mayo Clinic). The pericardium is made up of two thin layers of tissue, with a small amount of fluid in between that acts as a lubricant between the two layers. When this membrane becomes swollen or irritated, it can cause a number of symptoms, including chest pain and heart function issues.

The exact cause of pericarditis is not always clear. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the causes are unknown in up to 90% of cases. However, the clinic explains that the condition can be triggered by various factors, including viral, fungal, parasitic, or bacterial infections; injury to the chest; and autoimmune diseases. According to the clinic, some people may also develop pericarditis as a result of other underlying medical conditions, such as kidney failure and tumors, or after a heart attack.

Diagnosis of pericarditis typically involves a thorough medical evaluation, which may include a physical examination, electrocardiogram (ECG), chest X-ray, blood test, and echocardiogram (via the Mayo Clinic).

Is pericarditis a serious condition?

Pericarditis can range from mild to serious and can have a significant impact on quality of life and heart function. Pericarditis is characterized by the presence of inflammation, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The chronic form of pericarditis usually lasts longer than 3 months.

Many cases of pericarditis are mild. But in other cases, complications can arise, such as constrictive pericarditis, which is when the inflamed layers thicken and stiffen, interfering with heart function, per the clinic.

Pericarditis can also lead to other heart-related complications such as tamponade, which is a life-threatening condition in which too much fluid builds up around the heart, compromising heart function and causing blood pressure to plummet, explains the Mayo Clinic

Contact your doctor immediately if you experience symptoms of pericarditis, such as chest pain or pressure, difficulty breathing, swelling in the legs and feet, and fast or irregular heartbeat. Early diagnosis and treatment can improve outcomes and prevent complications. The Cleveland Clinic recommends calling 911 if you experience chest pain, since chest pain is a common symptom of a heart attack.

If you've already been diagnosed with the condition, it's best to follow your doctor's instructions and attend all scheduled follow-up appointments to monitor your condition and make any necessary adjustments to your treatment plan. If you experience any new or worsening symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

How is the condition treated?

Pericarditis is typically treated with a combination of medical and lifestyle interventions. Rest and medications are often the first lines of treatment for pericarditis.

Pain medications such as ibuprofen and anti-inflammatory drugs such as Colchicine may be prescribed to relieve pain and reduce inflammation, per the Mayo Clinic. According to the clinic, corticosteroids may also be used to reduce inflammation in more severe cases. For cases caused by bacterial infections, antibiotics may be prescribed to clear the infection, explain the clinic.

In some cases, pericardiocentesis may be performed to remove excess fluid from around the heart, says the Mayo Clinic. In severe cases where the pericardium has become thickened or stiffened, surgery may be necessary to remove a portion of the pericardium, per the Cleveland Clinic.

In addition to medical treatments, lifestyle modifications may be recommended to manage symptoms and reduce the risk of complications. This may include changes to exercise habits, says the Mayo Clinic.