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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Pericarditis?

The most common sign of acute pericarditis is sharp, stabbing chest pain. The pain usually comes on quickly. It often is felt in the middle or left side of the chest or over the front of the chest. You also may feel pain in one or both shoulders, the neck, back, and abdomen.

The pain tends to ease when you sit up and lean forward. Lying down and deep breathing worsens it. For some people, the pain feels like a dull ache or pressure in the chest.

The chest pain also may feel like pain from a heart attack. If you have chest pain, you should call 9–1–1 right away, as you may be having a heart attack.

Some people with acute pericarditis develop a fever. Other symptoms are weakness, palpitations, trouble breathing, and coughing. (Palpitations are feelings that your heart is skipping a beat, fluttering, or beating too hard or too fast.)

The most common symptom of chronic pericarditis is chest pain. Chronic pericarditis also often causes tiredness, coughing, and shortness of breath. Severe cases of chronic pericarditis can lead to swelling in the stomach and legs and hypotension (low blood pressure).

Complications of Pericarditis

Two serious complications of pericarditis are cardiac tamponade (tam-po-NAD) and chronic constrictive pericarditis.

Cardiac tamponade occurs if too much fluid collects in the pericardium (the sac around the heart). The extra fluid puts pressure on the heart. This prevents the heart from properly filling with blood. As a result, less blood leaves the heart, which causes a sharp drop in blood pressure. If left untreated, cardiac tamponade can be fatal.

Chronic constrictive pericarditis is a rare disease that develops over time. It leads to scar-like tissue forming throughout the pericardium. The sac becomes stiff and can't move properly. In time, the scarred tissue compresses the heart and prevents it from working well.

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September 26, 2012 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.