When the pericardium is inflamed, it may cause these layers to become more sticky and for more fluid to accumulate in the sac. Your doctor may hear a rubbing sound when he listens to your heart as the two sticky layers of your pericardium rub off each other. Sometimes a large amount of fluid may accumulate in the pericardial sac.
Acute pericarditis usually begins suddenly but doesn’t last long (few weeks). If symptoms develop more slowly or if they persist for a longer time, then it is considered chronic pericarditis.
The most common symptom of pericarditis is chest pain. In acute pericarditis the pain tends to be sharp and is made worse by deep breaths, swallowing or by lying down flat. It may spread to the neck and left shoulder.
Many people with pericarditis feel weak, sick and may have a fever. These features help your doctor separate this pain from angina.
Early diagnosis and treatment of pericarditis help to reduce the risk of the long-term complications and persistent chronic inflammation.
Your doctor will start by taking your medical history and may be able to tell from your description of your chest pain and your other symptoms. Your doctor will also perform a physical examination and listen to your heart for a rubbing sound typical of the 2 layers rubbing off each other.
There are some tests which may help the doctor make a diagnosis which may include an electrocardiogram (ECG); chest x-ray; blood tests to look for signs of infection.
Pain killers or anti-inflammatory drugs are the common treatment. Antibiotics will also be prescribed if the pericarditis is due to a bacterial infection.
When there is excess fluid in the pericardial sac and this interferes with the hearts work, fluid can be withdrawn with a needle.
Pericarditis may last up to 3 weeks and usually causes no more problems but about 1 in 5 people can get a recurrence. It is advisable to get lots of rest while you recuperate and avoid vigorous or strenuous physical activity.
Read our article on How your heart works.
And more about heart conditions, from diagnosis to prevention and treatment, view our Heart Conditions Explained articles such as: atherosclerosis, angina, heart attack and stroke.