What is pericarditis?

The heart is covered by a thin, sac-like membrane called the pericardium. Pericarditis (pronounced pear-i-car-DIE-tis) is a condition where this membrane becomes irritated (inflamed).

The pericardium has 2 layers: an inner layer and an outer layer. A small amount of fluid normally exists between the 2 layers. When the pericardium becomes inflamed, extra fluid is produced.

If a large amount of fluid builds up, the extra fluid can compress the heart and make it less able to pump. This is called cardiac tamponade (pronounced tam-pah-NAID). This is dangerous and can make the blood pressure drop too low.

  • Most of the time, pericarditis results from a viral infection.

    In children, pericarditis may happen after heart surgery — not because of an infection, but because their surgeon had to cut through their pericardium to operate on their heart.

    Though less common, pericarditis may also be caused by diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus or rheumatoid arthritis or by drugs or radiation.

Pericarditis at Seattle Children’s

  • U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks Seattle Children’s cardiology and heart surgery program as one of the best in the country. With more than 40 pediatric cardiologists, we have experience diagnosing and treating every kind of heart problem.

    Our heart team has treated many children with pericarditis. We have years of experience with the treatment these patients may require.

    Seattle Children’s has been treating children since 1907. Our team members are specially trained in their fields and in meeting the unique needs of children. For example, the doctors who give your child anesthesia are board certified in pediatric anesthesiology. This means they have extra years of training in how to take care of kids. Our child life specialists know how to help children understand their illnesses and treatments in ways that make sense for their age.

  • When an infant, child or young adult arrives at Seattle Children’s, a team of people will take care of them. Along with your child’s heart doctor (cardiologist), you are connected with newborn intensive care physicians (neonatologists), lung doctors (pulmonologists), nurses, child life specialists, social workers and others, if their expertise is needed.

    We’re committed to your child’s overall health and well-being. We’ll discuss treatments in ways you can understand and involve you in every decision.

    Read more about the supportive care we offer.

Symptoms of Pericarditis

The main symptom of pericarditis is chest pain. Frequently, the pain is sharp. Often, it gets worse when the child lies down or breathes deeply and gets better when they sit up and lean forward.

A child with pericarditis may also: 

  • Feel weak or more tired than normal
  • Have trouble breathing
  • Have a fever

Diagnosing Pericarditis

The doctor will ask for details about any symptoms your child has, their health history and your family health history.

To diagnose pericarditis, your doctor will examine your child and use a stethoscope to listen to their heart and lungs. Sometimes, doctors can hear the sound of the pericardium rubbing on the heart.

An electrocardiogram and echocardiography will usually be done to help diagnose pericarditis and evaluate heart function. Sometimes a CT (computed tomography) scan or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the heart will also be needed.

In addition, your child may need blood tests to check for infection.

Treating Pericarditis

Pericarditis often gets better on its own after a few days or weeks. After checking your child’s condition, your doctor may suggest that your child get extra rest and take an over-the-counter medicine to help relieve their pain and inflammation. In more painful or severe cases, your doctor may prescribe stronger medicines for inflammation.

If a bacterial infection is the cause, the doctor may recommend medicine (antibiotics).

When pericarditis causes problems with the heart’s ability to pump blood, other treatments may be needed. If the amount of fluid is large, it may need to be drained.

Contact Us 

Contact the Heart Center at 206-987-2515 to request an appointment, a second opinion or more information.

Providers, see how to refer a patient.