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Pericarditis in Children

What is pericarditis?

Pericarditis is inflammation or infection of the pericardium.The pericardium is two thin layers that surround the heart. Normally, there is a small amount of fluid between the layers of the pericardium. When it becomes inflamed, the amount of fluid may increase. This is called pericardial effusion. If the amount of fluid increases quickly, it can affect how the heart  pumps blood. This condition is called pericardial tamponade.

What causes pericarditis?

In children, pericarditis is most likely to happen after surgery to repair heart defects. Other causes may include:

  • Viral or bacterial infection
  • Autoimmune disorders such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Other rare causes, such as injury, medicine, or cancer

What are the symptoms of pericarditis?

These are the most common symptoms of pericarditis:

  • Chest pain, often described as sharp
  • Low-grade fever
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling the heart beat (heart palpitations)
  • Fainting (syncope)

Children may not be able to describe that they have "chest pain" or be able to explain exactly how they feel. Sometimes a child may only be irritable, have no appetite, or be tired.

The symptoms of pericarditis can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is pericarditis diagnosed?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. The provider may hear an abnormal heart sound called a rub, when listening to your child's heart with a stethoscope. A rub is an abnormal sound caused by irritation of the pericardium. Your child may need tests, such as:

  • Blood tests.A complete blood count (CBC) and other tests to check for inflammation and infection.
  • Chest X-ray. An X-ray of the heart and lungs.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG). A simple test of the electrical activity of the heart. Changes may occur from pericarditis.
  • Echocardiography (echo). A test that uses sound waves (ultrasound) to make moving pictures of the heart and heart valves.

How is pericarditis treated?

Your child's healthcare provider will likely refer you to a pediatric cardiologist. This is a doctor with special training to treat children with heart problems.

The goal of treatment for pericarditis is to find and eliminate the cause of the disease. Treatment may include:

  • Medicine. Medicine can ease pain and inflammation. Antibiotics can treat an infection caused by bacteria. Medicine also can help the heart work better.
  • Removing extra fluid in the pericardium (aspiration). The fluid may also be looked at to find the cause of the pericarditis.
  • Surgery

What are the complications of pericarditis?

Pericarditis may come back and may become long-term (chronic). Heart problems may occur, including cardiac tamponade.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call your child's healthcare provider if your child's symptoms get worse, including chest pain and trouble breathing.

Key points about pericarditis

  • Pericarditis is an inflammation or infection of the covering of the heart.
  • Pericarditis is most often caused by an infection.
  • Chest pain is the most common symptom of pericarditis. A child may be irritable, feed or eat poorly, and be tired.
  • Treatment of pericarditis includes medicines for inflammation and pain. Antibiotics may be used for infections from bacteria.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.
Online Medical Reviewer: Bass, Pat F. III, MD, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 2/27/2015
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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