Harvard Heart Letter

Ask the doctor: What causes fluid to build up around the heart and what can be done to treat it?

Ask the doctor

What causes fluid to build up around the heart and what can be done to treat it?

Q. My brother-in-law was told that he has some fluid around his heart. What does that mean, and how is it treated?

A. The heart is surrounded by a thin, two-layer sac called the pericardium. It looks a bit like a cellophane bag. The pericardium protects the heart, limits its motion, and prevents it from expanding too much when blood volume increases.

The medical term for a buildup of fluid inside this sac is pericardial effusion. It can be caused by infection, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, a heart attack, heart or other surgery, trauma, kidney failure, malnutrition, an underactive thyroid, and many other conditions.

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