Harvard Heart Letter

Ask the doctor: What is pericarditis?

Q. I had chest pains for a couple of days and thought I was having a heart attack. My doctor did an electrocardiogram and said I had pericarditis and that it was not serious. What exactly is pericarditis?

A. Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, a protective, double-layered sac surrounding the heart. It has many different possible causes, including a virus or other infection, certain illnesses, an injury to the chest, radiation therapy for cancer, or a reaction to medications. Complications from bypass surgery or the insertion of a pacemaker are other possible triggers. But most of the time, the cause remains elusive.

The classic symptom of pericarditis is a sharp, stabbing pain in the center or left side of the chest that's worse when you take a deep breath or lie down. The pain results from the irritated layers of the sac rubbing together. Pericarditis may be mistaken for pleuritis, an inflammation of the double-layered membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the rib cage.

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