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Pericarditis is a condition in which the sac-like covering surrounding the heart (the pericardium) becomes inflamed. Symptoms of pericarditis include chest pain which increases with deep breathing and lying flat.

Epidemiology and Demographics

Pericarditis most often affects men aged 20 - 50. It usually follows respiratory infections. Pericarditis in developed countries are usually due to viral infections such as echovirus and coxsackie virus, while in developing countries it is usually secondary to tuberculosis or HIV infection. The incidence of pericarditis following MI has greatly reduced with the use of early thrombolytic agents and revascularization.

Natural History, Complications and Prognosis

Pericarditis is often self-limited and most people recover in 2 weeks to 3 months. However, the condition can be complicated by significant fluid buildup around the heart (a pericardial effusion or cardiac tamponade) and may require urgent intervention including pericardiocentesis. If scarring of the sac around the heart (the pericardium) occurs, then this is called constrictive pericarditis which may require surgical stripping of the scar.


Pericarditis is usually a complication of viral infections, most commonly echovirus or coxsackie virus. In addition, pericarditis can be associated with diseases such as autoimmune disorders, cancer, hypothyroidism, and kidney failure. Often the cause of pericarditis remains unknown, or idiopathic.


Physical Examination

A careful physical examination must be performed to exclude the presence of cardiac tamponade, a dangerous complication of pericarditis. If cardiac tamponade is present, then pulsus paradoxus, hypotension, an elevated jugular venous pressure and peripheral edema may be present.


In the presence of a large effusion or tamponade, there may be diminished voltage and electrical alternans (alternation of QRS complex amplitude or axis between beats).


Echocardiographys is generally performed to assess for the presence of a pericardial effusion and to assess and monitor its size. Echocardiography is critical in confirming the clinical suspicion cardiac tamponade.


In cases that are thought to be due to viral pericarditis, treatment includes aspirin or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen for inflammation of the pericardium. Corticosteroids such as prednisone and / or Colchicine may be be necessary in refractory cases. Diuretics may be prescribed to remove excess fluid in the pericardial sac.


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