What is acute pericarditis?

Acute pericarditis involves inflammation of the pericardium that occurs abruptly and often painful. It causes the fluid and blood components such as red blood cells, fibrin and white blood cells to enter the pericardial space.

Oftentimes, the inflammation can cause the entry of excess fluid to the pericardial space. In some cases, once pericarditis is due to an injury, heart surgery or cancer, the fluid is blood.

Possible causes

Acute pericarditis

In most instances, acute pericarditis causes fever and piercing chest pain that often radiates to the left shoulder and down the left arm.

Acute pericarditis typically develops after an infection or other conditions that irritates the pericardium. The infection is typically due to viruses such as the influenza virus or HIV but can be caused by fungi, bacteria or parasites.

Other conditions can trigger the inflammation of pericardium which results to acute pericarditis. These conditions include the following:

  • Heart attack
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Heart surgery
  • Kidney failure
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)
  • Cancer
  • Injuries
  • Rheumatic fever
  • Radiation therapy

What are the indications of acute pericarditis?

In most instances, acute pericarditis causes fever and piercing chest pain that often radiates to the left shoulder and down the left arm. The pain is strikingly similar to a heart attack but it is usually aggravated by lying down, coughing, swallowing food or deep breathing.

The buildup of fluid or blood in the pericardial space compresses the heart, thus disrupting with its capability to pump blood. If the pressure is high, cardiac tamponade can occur which is fatal. Oftentimes, acute pericarditis will not trigger any symptoms.

If the condition is due to tuberculosis, it starts insidiously without any evident symptoms of a lung infection. It can trigger fever and symptoms of heart failure such as fatigue, weakness and difficulty breathing. If due to a viral infection, the pain is usually brief and will not cause any lasting effects.

Once acute pericarditis develops in the initial day or two after a heart attack, the symptoms are infrequently noted since the symptoms of the heart attack are the main concern. If pericarditis develops 10 days up to 2 months after a heart attack, it can be accompanied by Dressler syndrome with symptoms such as fever, pericardial effusion, joint pain, pleurisy and pleural effusion.

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