Overview on pericardial effusion

Pericardial effusion involves irregular accumulation of excess fluid between the pericardium and the heart. Since the condition is usually due to various ailments, anyone can be affected if they develop these conditions.

What are the causes?

Pericardial effusion and the ensuing inflammation of the pericardium has various possible causes such as:

  • Viral or bacterial infections such as tuberculosis
  • Heart surgery
  • Inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
  • Kidney failure with high blood levels of nitrogen
  • Cancer that metastasized to the pericardium

Is it serious?


The usual indications of pericardial effusion include shortness of breath and chest pain.

The severity of the condition is based on the main cause, size and growth rate of the effusion and if it can be effectively treated. The causes that can be managed or controlled such as infection due to virus or heart failure can be effectively treated.

Pericardial effusion due to other ailments such as cancer is serious and must be diagnosed and promptly treated.

In addition, the rapid accumulation of fluid in the pericardium can lead to cardiac tamponade which is severe compression of the heart that disrupts it ability to function.


Many individuals with a minor case of pericardial effusion does not have any symptoms. The condition might be discovered on a CT scan, chest X-ray or echocardiogram performed for other reasons. Primarily, the pericardium might stretch to accommodate the buildup of excess fluid. Understandably, the indications might not arise until a large amount of fluid accumulated over time.

In case the symptoms arise, it might result from the compression of the bordering structures such as the stomach, lung or phrenic nerve. The symptoms might also manifest due to diastolic heart failure.

The usual indications of pericardial effusion include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Abdominal fullness
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty swallowing

Management of pericardial effusion

The treatment for pericardial effusion is based on the underlying condition responsible and if the effusion results to severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.

Medical care

The objective of medical care for pericardial effusion is to deal with the underlying cause. The commonly used therapies include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – these are given to manage pericardial effusion due to inflammation
  • Diuretics and other medications for heart failure
  • Antibiotics if due to an infection
  • Chemotherapy, radiation therapy or medications infused inside the chest for cases linked to cancer


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