How to Cite This Chapter: Ahmed Z, Ainsworth C, Tomkowski W, Kuca P. ­Pericarditis. McMaster Textbook of Internal Medicine. Kraków: Medycyna Praktyczna. Accessed July 07, 2020.
Last Updated: March 29, 2019
Last Reviewed: July 23, 2019
Chapter Information

Definition, Etiology, PathogenesisTop

Pericardial syndromes refer to diseases that involve the pericardium. These include pericarditis, pericardial effusion, cardiac tamponade, pericardial masses, and constrictive pericarditis.

Pericarditis is the most common pericardial syndrome worldwide. It refers to an inflammatory process involving the pericardial sac.


1) Infectious:

a) Viral: Parvovirus B19, Ebstein-Barr Virus, echovirus, coxsackievirus, cytomegalovirus, adenovirus.

b) Bacterial: Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Coxiella burnetii, Borrelia burgdorferi. Other bacterial causes are rare.

c) Fungal: Histoplasma spp, Aspergillus spp, Blastomyces spp, Candida spp. Fungal causes are rarely seen in immunocompetent patients.

2) Noninfectious:

a) Inflammatory: Post–myocardial infarction (MI) pericarditis (early after MI), postpericardiotomy syndrome after cardiac surgery.

b) Autoimmune diseases: Dressler syndrome (post–cardiac injury syndrome weeks after MI), systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, sarcoidosis, Sjögren syndrome, Behçet syndrome, other systemic vasculitides. Rarely pericarditis can be seen in familial Mediterranean fever and tumor necrosis factor receptor–associated periodic syndrome.

c) Neoplastic: Primary tumors (rare; most frequently pericardial mesothelioma) or secondary tumors (common; most frequently lung cancer, breast cancer, lymphoma, melanoma).

d) Metabolic: Uremia, hypothyroidism (myxedema), anorexia nervosa, hypoadrenalism.

e) Traumatic and iatrogenic: Direct injury (penetrating thoracic injury, esophageal perforation); indirect injury (nonpenetrating thoracic injury, radiation injury); and other iatrogenic injury due to complications related to coronary percutaneous intervention, pacemaker lead insertion, or radiofrequency ablation.

f) Drug-related (rare): Procainamide, hydralazine, phenytoin, antineoplastic drugs (eg, doxorubicin, daunorubicin, cytarabine, fluorouracil, cyclophosphamide), penicillins, streptokinase, para-aminosalicylic acid, amiodarone, cyclosporine (INN ciclosporin), thiazide diuretics, granulocyte and macrophage colony-stimulating factors, tumor necrosis factor alpha inhibitors.

The mechanism for pericardial fluid accumulation in malignancy may be related to pericardial inflammation caused directly by cancer cells in the pericardium or as a consequence of treatment (ie, certain chemotherapies or radiation) or obstruction of lymphatic drainage of pericardial fluid by malignant deposits.

Clinical Features and Natural HistoryTop

Natural history of acute pericarditis depends on etiology (Table 3.14-1). Pericarditis can be acute, incessant (>4-6 weeks but <3 months with no remission), chronic (>3 months), or recurrent (recurring after an episode of acute pericarditis and following an asymptomatic period lasting ≥4-6 weeks; recurrence usually takes place within 18-24 months).

Adverse prognostic factors:

1) Major: Fever >38 degrees Celsius, subacute onset, large pericardial effusion, cardiac tamponade, lack of response to high-dose acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for ≥1 week.

2) Minor: Myopericarditis, immunosuppression, trauma, oral anticoagulant therapy.

Patients with ≥1 of the above adverse prognostic factors, either major or minor, are considered to be at high risk of complications. Patients at moderate risk have no risk factors but their response to NSAIDs is incomplete. Patients at low risk have no risk factors and a good response to anti-inflammatory treatment.

1. Symptoms: In acute pericarditis symptoms include pleuritic and positional chest pain that is worse with inspiration and recumbency (the key symptom; see Chest Pain). This may be accompanied by dry cough and dyspnea and preceded by low-grade or high-grade fever (usually <39 degrees Celsius), malaise, arthralgia, and myalgia. Chronic pericarditis is characterized by chest pain, palpitations, loss of appetite, and sometimes weight loss.

2. Signs: Pericardial friction rub (transient, not always present; most easily audible during held expiration with the patient seated and leaning slightly forward). Cardiac tamponade may occur in patients with acute pericarditis. Features of myocarditis may be present in patients with infectious causes of pericarditis.


Diagnostic Tests

1. Laboratory tests: Elevations in erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, less frequently leukocytosis (in patients with bacterial pericarditis), and sometimes elevated levels of cardiac troponins if associated with myocarditis (perimyocarditis).

2. Electrocardiography (ECG): Generalized/diffuse upsloping ST-segment elevations and PR-segment depressions (except for lead aVR, where ST-segment depression and PR-segment elevation is seen in acute pericarditis). The evolution of pericarditis on ECG follows 4 stages: diffuse ST-elevation (stage 1); normalization of the ST segment over a few days (stage 2); T-wave inversions (stage 3); return to normal baseline ECG (stage 4). No pathologic Q-wave formation or precordial lead R-wave disappearance is observed.

3. Chest radiographs: In patients with pericardial effusions >250 mL, the cardiac silhouette may be enlarged (“water bottle” configuration).

4. Echocardiography: Images may be normal. A pericardial effusion may be present. Transthoracic echocardiography is recommended in all patients with suspected acute pericarditis to assess for the presence of pericardial effusion and echocardiographic features of increased intrapericardial pressures or overt pericardial tamponade.

5. Computed tomography (CT): CT may be useful to detect pericardial calcification or thickening. Nongated CT scans generally overestimate the size of pericardial effusion (it is normally measured at end diastole but nongated CT obtains pictures throughout cardiac cycle).

6. Analysis of pericardial fluid: Evaluation of pericardial fluid requires pericardiocentesis.

7. Pericardial biopsy: Histologic examination of biopsy specimens is helpful in the diagnosis of pericarditis caused by neoplastic or inflammatory processes.

Diagnostic Criteria

Diagnosis is based on clinical features and results of diagnostic tests, particularly echocardiography.

Acute pericarditis is diagnosed in patients fulfilling ≥2 out of 4 criteria:

1) Chest pain with features typical of pericarditis (ie, pleuritic, worse when lying flat).

2) Pericardial friction rub on auscultation.

3) New-onset widespread/diffuse ST-segment elevation, PR-segment depression on ECG (except for lead aVR, which is opposite, ie, ST depression and PR elevation), or both.

4) Pericardial effusion on echocardiography (new-onset or worsening).

Further supportive findings of acute pericarditis include elevation of inflammatory markers (ESR or CRP) or imaging features suggestive of pericardial inflammation shown on CT or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

To confirm viral etiology (rarely needed), consider studies (histologic, cytologic, immunohistologic, molecular) of pericardial fluid and pericardial/epicardial biopsy. If diagnosis is uncertain, use the term “presumed viral pericarditis.” Routine viral serologic studies are not recommended except if HIV or hepatitis C virus is suspected to be the cause.

Malignancy as a cause of pericarditis or pericardial effusion is confirmed on the basis of cytology studies of pericardial fluid, histologic examination of pericardial specimens, elevated levels of tumor markers in pericardial fluid (high concentrations of carcinoembryonic antigen with low adenosine deaminase levels are typical for malignant effusions compared with those caused by tuberculosis [TB]), and identification of the primary tumor in the case of metastatic disease.


1. Patients at high or moderate risk of complications (see Clinical Features and Natural History, above) are sometimes hospitalized to establish the etiology and monitor the course of disease. Low-risk patients may be treated on an outpatient basis with evaluation of response to anti-inflammatory treatment after approximately 1 week.

2. Management algorithmFigure 3.14-1.

General Measures

1. First-line agents in acute pericarditis:

1) ASA or NSAIDs with concomitant gastric protection (proton pump inhibitors). Dosage: Table 3.14-2.

2) Oral colchicine 0.5 to 0.6 mg (European tablets are 0.5 mg, North American tablets are 0.6 mg) bid for 3 months usually in combination with a shorter course of ASA or an NSAID. The dose may be given once daily in patients weighing <70 kg or with gastrointestinal intolerance. Compared with placebo, colchicine reduces the risk of recurrence, improves remission rates, and decreases hospitalization rates.Evidence 1Weak recommendation (benefits likely outweigh downsides, but the balance is close or uncertain; an alternative course of action may be better for some patients). Moderate Quality of Evidence (moderate confidence that we know true effects of the intervention). Quality of Evidence lowered due to the risk of bias. Imazio M, Gaita F, LeWinter M. Evaluation and Treatment of Pericarditis: A Systematic Review. JAMA. 2015 Oct 13;314(14):1498-506. doi: 10.1001/jama.2015.12763. Review. Erratum in: JAMA. 2015 Nov 10;314(18):1978. JAMA. 2016 Jan 5;315(1):90. Dosage error in article text. PubMed PMID: 26461998.

2. Glucocorticoids: Low doses are used. Dosage: Table 3.14-2. Glucocorticoids are indicated when treatment with ASA or NSAIDs is contraindicated or ineffective and in situations where infection has been excluded (or is very unlikely). They are also used in patients who have specific indications for glucocorticoid treatment (eg, those with autoimmune disease, some postpericardiotomy syndrome patients, pregnant women). If infection cannot be excluded, particularly of bacterial etiology (including TB), do not use glucocorticoids. Colchicine is usually added to glucocorticoids.

3. Restriction of strenuous physical activity: In patients with acute pericarditis, strenuous physical activity should be restricted until symptoms, ECG findings, and elevated inflammatory markers (ESR or CRP) resolve. If there is evidence of concomitant myocarditis, at least 6 months of strenuous exercise restriction is advised, based on expert recommendations.

Treatment of Specific Types of Pericarditis

1. Purulent pericarditis: Open pericardial drainage through the substernal pericardiotomy approach with 0.9% saline irrigation and appropriate IV antimicrobial treatment. Consider intrapericardial administration of fibrinolytic agents and pericardiectomy in patients with significant adhesions, loculated or thick purulent effusion, recurrent cardiac tamponade, persistent infection, or disease progressing to constrictive pericarditis.

2. Tuberculous pericarditis: Administration of 4 anti-TB drugs is necessary (see Tuberculosis: Active Disease). In patients not residing in endemic areas, empiric anti-TB treatment is not recommended if the diagnosis of TB pericarditis has not been confirmed. Empiric anti-TB treatment is recommended in residents of endemic areas with confirmed exudative pericardial effusion once other causes have been excluded. Some authors recommend addition of glucocorticoids: prednisone 1 to 2 mg/kg/d for 5 to 7 days with the dose gradually tapered down to discontinuation over 6 to 8 weeks.

3. Uremic pericarditis: Increasing the frequency of dialysis usually leads to resolution of symptoms within 1 to 2 weeks. In patients with persistent symptoms, use NSAIDs (with caution in patients with severe renal injury) and glucocorticoids. In patients with large pericardial effusions not responding to adequate treatment, use intrapericardial glucocorticoids. Colchicine is contraindicated in patients with severe renal failure.

4. Pericarditis in patients with systemic connective tissue disease or sarcoidosis resolves with adequate treatment of the underlying condition. Intrapericardial glucocorticoids are not routinely recommended but may be considered in selected cases.

5. Post-MI pericarditis: ASA 650 mg every 4 hours for 2 to 5 days or ibuprofen (dosage: Table 3.14-2). Usually ASA is preferred, as these patients will require antiplatelet therapy following MI.

6. Postpericardiotomy syndrome: NSAIDs or ASA in the same doses as in presumed viral pericarditis with colchicine for several weeks or months (even after resolution of pericardial effusion). If ineffective, perform pericardiocentesis combined with intrapericardial administration of glucocorticoids and oral glucocorticoids for 3 to 6 months.

7. Neoplastic pericarditis: In patients with chemosensitive cancer use systemic chemotherapy. In patients with large effusions who are symptomatic, pericardiocentesis may be necessary. In patients with recurrent effusions, consider administering an intrapericardial sclerosing agent (eg, tetracycline, bleomycin) or a nonsclerosing cytotoxic agent (eg, cisplatin; this is particularly effective in pericarditis caused by non–small cell lung cancer). Pericardial irradiation controls neoplastic effusions in >90% of cases of radiation-sensitive cancers (eg, lymphoma, leukemia) but it may by itself cause myocarditis, pericarditis, or both. Palliative treatment options include pericardiotomy or creation of a pericardial window.

8. Radiation pericarditis: Glucocorticoids. Dosage: Table 3.14-2.

9. Pericarditis in patients with hypothyroidism: Treatment of the underlying condition.

10. Recurrent pericarditis: First-line agents are (1) ASA or NSAIDs until complete resolution of symptoms, and (2) colchicine for 6 months in combination. Alternatively, low-dose glucocorticoids may be used as in acute pericarditis (see above). Dosage: Table 3.14-2. The use of glucocorticoids is only recommended in patients who are refractory to NSAIDs or ASA and colchicine therapy. Sometimes colchicine treatment should be prolonged, depending on clinical response. Regularly perform follow-up measurements of serum CRP levels to establish the duration of therapy and response to treatment. When CRP levels normalize, gradually taper down the dose of anti-inflammatory medications while monitoring symptoms and CRP levels. Do not discontinue all agents at the same time. If symptoms of pericarditis recur in the period of tapering treatment, do not increase the dose of glucocorticoids and use maximal doses of ASA or NSAIDs instead (usually in divided doses every 8 hours) in addition to colchicine. Use analgesics for pain control. In glucocorticoid-dependent recurrent pericarditis in patients not responding to colchicine, consider IV immunoglobulins, anakinra, or azathioprine (this requires specialist consultation).


In patients with recurrent or chronic pericarditis, as well as in patients after surgical procedures on the pericardium, echocardiographic monitoring is indicated for early detection of cardiac tamponade or constrictive pericarditis.


1. Cardiac tamponade.

2. Constrictive pericarditis: A rare but serious complication of chronic pericarditis (particularly frequent in patients with bacterial or TB pericarditis), which is characterized by loss of elasticity of the pericardium.

Symptoms: Progressive weakness, chest pain, palpitations; signs of chronic systemic venous congestion (jugular vein distension, absence of jugular vein collapse during inspiration [Kussmaul sign], ascites, hepatic enlargement and pulsation, peripheral edema); early diastolic heart sound (pericardial knock); hypotension with low pulse pressure.

Diagnosis: Diagnosis is based on imaging studies: chest radiographs (revealing pericardial calcifications, atrial enlargement, pleural effusion), CT, MRI, and echocardiography. Intracardiac pressure measurements may also be performed. ECG may reveal low-amplitude QRS complexes, generalized T-wave inversions or T-wave flattening, widening of P waves, sometimes atrial fibrillation, atrioventricular conduction disturbances, or intraventricular conduction disturbances. However, ECG may also be normal.

Differential diagnosis: Restrictive cardiomyopathy. Differentiation is based on echocardiography (including tissue Doppler echocardiography), CT, MRI, and cardiac catheterization.

Treatment: Pericardiectomy.

Tables and FiguresTop


Table 3.14-1. Course of acute pericarditis






Spontaneous remission





Relapse rates




Frequent (>25%)

Mortality rates in untreated disease

Depends on type of virus and occurrence of cardiac tamponade



Death in case of untreated cardiac tamponade






Table 3.14-2. Typical dosage of anti-inflammatory agents in acute and recurrent pericarditis



Acute pericarditis

Recurrent pericarditis


650-1000 mg every 6-8 ha,b

500-1000 mg every 6-8 h (1.5-4 g/d)b,c


600-800 mg every 8 ha,d

600 mg every 8 h (1200-2400 mg)b,c


0.5-0.6 mg (once dailye or bidf)g,h

0.5-0.6 mg (bidf or once dailye,i)h,j


25-50 mg every 8 hc,k,l


Doses depend on agents usedm,n

a For 1-2 weeks.

b Decrease the dose by 250-500 mg every 1-2 weeks. In case of recurrent pericarditis in patients showing more resistance to treatment, you may consider more gradual and longer tapering of doses down to discontinuation.

c For weeks or months.

d Decrease the dose by 200-400 mg every 1-2 weeks. In case of recurrent pericarditis in patients showing more resistance to treatment, you may consider more gradual and longer tapering of doses down to discontinuation.

e In patients <70 kg.

f In patients ≥70 kg.

g For 3 months. Note that in North America colchicine is only available in 0.6 mg tablets, whereas the 0.5 mg dose is available in Europe.

h Tapering down is not necessary; however, you may decrease the dose by 0.5 mg every other day in patients <70 kg or by 0.5 mg once a day in the last weeks of treatment in patients ≥70 kg.

i In patients who do not tolerate higher doses.

j For ≥6 months.

k Start from low doses and titrate them up to avoid headache and dizziness.

l Decrease the dose by 25 mg every 1-2 weeks. In patients resistant to treatment, you may consider more gradual and longer tapering of doses down to discontinuation.

m The starting dose of prednisone is 0.25-0.5 mg/kg/d. A dose of 25 mg of prednisone is equivalent to 20 mg of methylprednisolone. Higher doses should be avoided except for selected patients (higher doses are then used over a few days and rapidly tapered down to 25 mg/d).

n Prednisone dose may be tapered down (particularly <25 mg/d) when symptoms have resolved and CRP normalized.

Based on Eur Heart J. 2015;36(42):2921-64.

ASA, acetylsalicylic acid; bid, twice a day; CRP, C-reactive protein.

Figure 3.14-1. Management algorithm in pericarditis. Based on the 2015 European Society of Cardiology guidelines.

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