Acute Pericarditis Treatment & Management

Updated: Jan 24, 2017
  • Author: Sean Spangler, MD; Chief Editor: Terrence X O'Brien, MD, MS, FACC  more...
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Approach Considerations

Oxygen and a cardiac monitor should be provided. Rule out other life-threatening causes of chest pain, such as myocardial infarction (MI) or aortic dissection. Evaluate for evidence of hemodynamic instability.

Consider whether further management is safe to continue on an outpatient basis. In one study, fever of more than 100.4°F (38°C), subacute onset, immunosuppression, trauma, oral anticoagulation therapy, aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) treatment failure, myopericarditis, severe pericardial effusion, and cardiac tamponade were designated as poor prognostic predictors. [36] Patients without these factors were treated on an outpatient basis without serious complications after a mean follow-up of 38 months. [36]  Similar poor prognostic indicators were noted in a more recent systematic review (fever of more than 100.4°F [38°C], subacute onset, unsuccessful NSAID therapy, large pericardial effusion or tamponade). [5]

Avoid NSAIDs and corticosteroids in acute MI pericarditis, because they may interfere with ventricular healing, remodeling, or both.

For cases of complicated pericarditis, therapies targeting the inflammasome may result in more durable remission and resolution. [24]

Patients may require transfer to a hospital setting in which hemodialysis and cardiothoracic surgery are available.

Form more information, see the Medscape Reference topics Constrictive Pericarditis, Constrictive-Effusive Pericarditis, and Pediatric Infective Pericarditis.


Prehospital Care

Patients with chest pain, regardless of etiology, should routinely be treated with oxygen and cardiac monitor.

Patients suspected of having pericarditis should have routine care as for patients with acute cardiac conditions The initial prehospital care for suspected cardiac tamponade is the same as for any major trauma. The diagnosis may also be suspected based on the location of any penetrating wounds. The possibility of a tension pneumothorax should also be considered.


Emergency Department Care

The emergency care of the patient centers on prompt diagnosis and treatment of potentially life-threatening entities. Thoracotomy and pericardiotomy may be required if the patient has rapid deterioration or cardiac arrest.


Ideally, echocardiography should be readily available to determine the presence or absence of a pericardial effusion (see Echocardiography under Workup). If no pericardial effusion is noted, stable patients with presumptive viral pericarditis may be discharged with appropriate instructions and follow-up care.

If a large effusion is present, the stable patient may undergo a pericardiocentesis or placement of a pericardial window (see Surgical Care).

Cardiac tamponade

Treatment for this condition depends on the patient’s stability. Unstable patients require immediate treatment of the increase in pericardial pressure with pericardiocentesis (see Surgical Care). Removing as little as 30-50 mL may produce dramatic hemodynamic improvement.

Patients may have subacute tamponade (intermittently decompressing) and may benefit from decompression in the operating room with cardiothoracic care available to treat cardiac injuries.


Treatment of Specific Types of Pericarditis

The treatment for specific types of pericarditis are briefly discussed in this section.

Idiopathic pericarditis

Treatment for this condition is similar to viral pericarditis and includes anti-inflammatory drugs to control symptoms and inflammation. [37] Colchicine may prevent recurrent pericarditis resistant to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs). Steroids are not administered initially as their use is associated with an increased incidence of recurrent pericarditis. 

Infectious pericarditis

The treatment of viral pericarditis is based on the symptoms present, with observation for the development of tamponade. Treatment for bacterial pericarditis includes appropriate antibiotics for at least 4 weeks and drainage of pericardial fluid.

For fungal infection, the ESC 2004 guideline recommends fluconazole, ketoconazole, itraconazole, amphotericin B, liposomal amphotericin B, or amphotericin B lipid complex for treatment of fungal infection. Corticosteroids and NSAIDs can be used to support the antifungal drug treatment. [27]

Intrapericardial fibrinolysis can be a useful treatment to assist with drainage of thick, loculated fluid, but open surgical drainage is preferred. Occasionally, patients require partial to total pericardiectomy.

Tubercular infection is managed with the usual antituberculous chemotherapy.

Controversy exists regarding the use of steroids in the treatment of tuberculous pericarditis. The ESC 2004 guideline advises using corticosteroid therapy only in patients with secondary tuberculous pericarditis, and only as an adjunct to tuberculostatic treatment. A meta-analysis of patients with effusive and constrictive TBC pericarditis found that tuberculostatic treatment, combined with steroids, might be associated with fewer deaths, less frequent need for pericardiocentesis or pericardiectomy. [20]

Use of adjunctive prednisolone in patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) may reduce mortality in this population.

Inflammatory pericarditis

Only symptomatic rheumatoid arthritis (RA) pericarditis should be treated. However, treat lupus pericarditis with anti-inflammatory agents and optimize systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) treatment.

Rheumatic fever pericarditis resolves with anti-inflammatory treatment.

Metabolic pericarditis

The development of pericarditis in a patient with severe acute or chronic renal failure is an absolute indication for intensive dialysis. In most patients, relief of chest pain and reduction in the size of any effusion occurs within 1-2 weeks.

If no improvement is noted after 7-10 days or if the patient has hemodynamic instability, proceed with pericardiocentesis or pericardiectomy (see Surgical Care). The ESC 2004 guideline recommends pericardiocentesis for treating cardiac tamponade and large chronic effusions resistant to dialysis. [20] Intensive dialysis is beneficial to most patients with uremia who develop pericarditis before dialysis. Dialysis-induced pericarditis fails to respond to more intensive dialysis in 25-33% of patients.

Both hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis are efficacious in the treatment of uremic pericarditis, though each technique has unique advantages and disadvantages. Hemodialysis may cause hypotension, which may be dangerous in the setting of tamponade. In addition, some physicians advocate heparin-free hemodialysis to reduce the risk of intrapericardial hemorrhage. Peritoneal dialysis may compromise respiratory function because of the effect of intraperitoneal fluid on the diaphragm.

In dialysis-associated pericarditis, an increased intensity of dialysis for 10-14 days is recommended. Close monitoring of fluid volume and electrolytes is mandatory to detect and correct hypophosphatemia and hypokalemia, which may occur with intensive dialysis. The response of dialysis-associated pericarditis is not predictable. In some instances, consider a switch to peritoneal dialysis if heparin-free dialysis cannot be performed.

NSAIDs and steroids may offer symptomatic relief but are not effective without dialysis. Indomethacin ameliorates fever, but it does not accelerate resolution of the effusion.

Early intervention with dialysis may prevent the development of uremic pericarditis. Maintenance of adequate dialysis therapy lessens the likelihood of a patient developing dialysis-associated pericarditis.

Treatment in hypothyroidism-associated pericarditis is hormone replacement.

The ESC 2004 guideline also recommends thyroid hormone therapy to decrease pericardial effusion. [27]

Cardiovascular pericarditis

Pericarditis does not contraindicate thrombolytic or anticoagulant therapy for an acute MI. However, anticoagulation should be discontinued if pericardial effusion develops or effusion size increases. Treatment is with aspirin.

In Dressler syndrome, anticoagulant therapy should be stopped because of the risk of hemorrhagic pericarditis. Treatment is with NSAIDs.

Miscellaneous conditions

With neoplasm-associated pericarditis, initial treatment includes relief of tamponade, confirmation of the diagnosis, and systemic treatment of the neoplasm. Further treatment options include sclerosis of the pericardial space, instillation of chemotherapeutic agents into the pericardial space, local radiation, or pericardiectomy.

The ESC 2004 guideline adds that prevention of recurrences of neoplastic pericarditis may be achieved via intrapericardial instillation of sclerosing, cytotoxic agents, or immunomodulators. Intrapericardial treatment tailored to the type of tumor shows that administration of cisplatin is most effective in secondary lung cancer and intrapericardial instillation of thiotepa was more effective in breast cancer or pericardial metastases. [38, 39]

The ESC 2004 guideline states that treatment of cardiac tamponade is a class I indication for pericardiocentesis in the presence of neoplastic pericarditis. In suspected neoplastic pericardial effusion without tamponade, the following are recommended: [27]

  • Systemic antineoplastic treatment as baseline therapy

  • Pericardiocentesis to relieve symptoms and to confirm diagnosis

  • Intrapericardial instillation of cytostatic/sclerosing agent

Drug-induced pericarditis treatment includes stopping the administration of the offending agent and anti-inflammatory therapy as needed. Treatment is with aspirin or NSAIDs.

Colchicine is effective in the prevention of postpericardiotomy syndrome and may halve the risk of developing this syndrome when used following cardiac surgery. [40]

Imazio et al found evidence that in patients with acute pericarditis, colchicine, when added to conventional anti-inflammatory therapy, significantly reduced the rate of incessant or recurrent pericarditis. [41] In a trial of 240 adults with acute pericarditis randomly assigned to receive colchicine (n = 120) or placebo (n = 120) for 3 months in addition to conventional anti-inflammatory therapy with aspirin or ibuprofen, the primary study outcome of incessant or recurrent pericarditis occurred in 20 patients (16.7%) in the colchicine group and 45 patients (37.5%) in the placebo group. Colchicine reduced the rate of symptom persistence at 72 hours, the number of recurrences per patient, and the hospitalization rate. Furthermore, colchicine improved the remission rate at 1 week. Both groups had similar overall adverse effects and rates of study-drug discontinuation, and no serious adverse events were reported. [41]

Diet and activity

Patients on dialysis require a daily diet restricted to 1.2 g/kg of protein, 2 g of sodium, and 2 g of potassium. Patients on peritoneal dialysis may require less stringent protein restriction.

Activity should be limited to avoid strenuous activities or trauma, which may increase the risk of hypotension or arrhythmias.


Pericardiectomy and Other Surgical Procedures

Surgical procedures for pericarditis include pericardiectomy, pericardiocentesis, pericardial window placement, and pericardiotomy.


Pericardiectomy is the most effective surgical procedure for managing large effusions, because it has the lowest associated risk of recurrent effusions. This procedure is used for constrictive pericarditis, effusive pericarditis, or recurrent pericarditis with multiple attacks, steroid dependence, and/or intolerance to other medical management.

Pericardiectomy requires general anesthesia and a thoracotomy; therefore, pericardiectomy should be considered only if pericardiotomy cannot be performed or has been unsuccessful. [42]

Studies demonstrate that failure rates are proportional to the amount of pericardium removed (ie, the more pericardium removed, the less likely the procedure will fail). In effusive pericarditis, the higher failure rate associated with a pericardial window procedure or partial pericardiectomy is likely secondary to the continued fluid production from the remaining pericardium, with sealing of the remaining pericardium to the heart.

The operative mortality rate was 14% in one series, with a range of 1% for New York Heart Association (NYHA) class 1-2, 10% for class 3, and 46% for class 4. The 5-year survival rate was 80% for class 3-4 and approximately 95% for 1-2.

As with pericardiocentesis, studies involving pericardiectomy note a greatly improved diagnostic yield if pericardial biopsy is performed as part of a therapeutic procedure. Diagnostic biopsies yielded 5%, whereas therapeutic biopsies were at 22-54%.

A study by Thompson et al indicated that complete pericardiectomy can produce good outcomes in properly selected pediatric patients with pericarditis. [43] The report involved 27 pediatric patients (mean age, 16.7 y), including 16 patients with inflammatory pericarditis and 11 with constrictive pericarditis. The median presurgical period of symptom duration for these patients was 1 year. Before the pericardiectomies were performed, 10 patients had been hospitalized for treatment of symptoms, 15 had undergone pericardiocentesis, and 3 had already undergone a partial pericardiectomy. [43]

The procedures in the above study consisted of complete pericardiectomy (21 patients), biventricular pericardiectomy (3 patients), and completion pericardiectomy (3 patients). The postoperative course was, for most of the patients, uneventful, although one patient with radiation-induced heart disease died of acute hepatic failure 155 days after undergoing pericardiectomy. [43] At follow-up (median period, 1 y), 89% of the patients had experienced complete symptom resolution.


People with effusions larger than 250 mL, effusions in which size increases despite intensive dialysis for 10-14 days, or effusions with evidence of tamponade are candidates for pericardiocentesis (for the technique, see Pericardiocentesis under Workup).

The image below shows preprocedure and postprocedure images of a cardiac silhouette.

Chest radiographs revealing markedly enlarged card Chest radiographs revealing markedly enlarged cardiac silhouette and normal-appearing lung parenchyma in prepericardiocentesis (A) and postpericardiocentesis (B). Courtesy of Zhi Zhou, MD.

Pericardial window placement

In critically ill patients, a balloon catheter may be used to create a pericardial window, in which only 9 cm2 or less of pericardium is resected. This procedure is a modification of balloon valvuloplasty in which an uninflated balloon is passed inside the pericardial space, where it is opacified, inflated, and then pulled through the pericardium to create a window through which pericardial fluid drains into the peritoneal or pleural space.

Pericardial window placement is used for effusive pericarditis therapy. Some studies note the need for repeat operation in nearly 25% of patients who undergo the procedure at 2 years.


Consider subxyphoidsubxiphoid pericardiotomy for large effusions that do not resolve. This procedure may be performed under local anesthesia and has a lower risk of complications compared with pericardiectomy.

The ESC 2004 guideline recommends percutaneous balloon pericardiotomy, which creates a pleuro-pericardial direct communication, allowing for drainage of fluid into the pleural space. In large malignant pericardial effusions and recurrent tamponade, it appears to be a safe and effective (90-97%) intervention. [27]



The following conditions are possible complications of acute pericarditis itself or treatment used in its management:

  • Recurrence in 15-32% of patients

  • Cardiac tamponade

  • Constrictive pericarditis. In addition, liver disease has been reported in asymptomatic constrictive pericarditis

  • Combination of effusive and constrictive pericarditis

  • Noncompressive effusion

  • Cardiac perforation with pericardiocentesis

Bronchopericardial fistula has been reported as a complication of multi–drug-resistant tuberculosis in a patient with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. [44]


Consultations and Long-Term Monitoring

Consult a cardiologist or internist for acute and idiopathic cases of pericarditis. In complicated cases (eg, tuberculous, traumatic pericardial injury, purulent uremic etiologies require multidisciplinary involvement) obtain consultations with a cardiologist, cardiac and/or trauma surgeon, and medical subspecialists (eg, infectious diseases specialist, nephrologist).

Consult with a cardiothoracic surgeon for all patients with large effusions. Development of tamponade is unpredictable, and it is important for the surgeon to be aware of the patient if an emergent procedure is necessary.

In patients with uremic or dialysis-associated pericarditis, carefully monitor the patient at follow-up hemodialysis visits for recurrence of signs or symptoms. Up to 15% of these patients may have recurrence of pericarditis.