What is Pericarditis? This Type of Heart Disease Can Affect Young Females

During National Heart Disease Awareness Month, it’s important to address a type of heart disease that can strike a nontraditional population: young women. Pericarditis is an abnormality that strikes the young as well as the old, and although it strikes more males than females, it is still a women’s heart problem that needs to be understood.

Pericarditis is a heart condition that causes inflammation of the pericardium, the thin sac that covers and protects the heart. R & B singer Toni Braxton is a perfect example of a young, seemingly healthy woman who contracted this heart problem. A few years ago, Braxton, in her 30’s and at the top of her game, got sick and fainted onstage as she was performing in a Broadway musical. After learning about her condition from an ER doctor, Braxton committed to recovery and now tells others about her experience.

What Causes Pericarditis

Most often, pericarditis is caused by a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection. Less frequently, those with inflammatory autoimmune disorders— lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and such— can develop this inflammatory illness. Other causes of pericarditis include chest injury or trauma (surgery), certain cancers, HIV, leukemia, or heart attacks. And pericarditis can simply be idiopathic, or from unknown origin.

Pericarditis Symptoms

  • Chest pain, especially when lying flat or breathing deeply (leaning forward eases pain)
  • Sharp pain radiating from the left breast bone up into the neck, left shoulder, and back
  • Fever
  • Fatigue and/or feeling “sick”
  • Pain when swallowing
  • A persistant cough

Pericarditis Diagnosis and Treatment

To diagnose pericarditis, a patient may initially have an EKG, which records the rhythm of the heart. 90% of patients with pericarditis have an irregular EKG. A simple test with a stethescope can reveal irregular heart sounds or “crackling” if there is fluid accumulation. An echocardiogram (ultrasound) can show an enlarged percardial sac (from inflammation) or any fluid collection in this area.

Pericarditis is treated in several ways, depending on the cause. If the source is bacterial, antibiotics will be administered. If the source is fungal, antifungal medication will be given. Often the cause is viral, in which case there is no direct medication to kill the virus, but just like with bacterial or fungal pericarditis, painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications (aspirin, ibuprofen) are used to treat the inflammation and pain. These are also used for other varieties of pericarditis. In more serious cases, steroids are used to treat inflammation.

If left untreated, pericarditis can lead to heart arrythmia (irregular heart beat) or pericardial scarring, which can limit normal heart pumping capabilities. Thus, if symptoms suggest pericarditis, it is important to seek immediate medical treatment.

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