Pericardial Effusion | Symptoms and Treatment | MedStar Health

Excess fluid buildup around the heart

The heart is surrounded by the pericardium, a tissue layer filled with fluid. Pericardial effusion occurs when this tissue is damaged, causing a buildup of extra fluid that puts pressure on the heart. Some of the conditions that can cause pericardial effusion include:

  • Autoimmune disorders such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis

  • Cancer

  • Heart infection or inflammation

  • Kidney failure

  • Bleeding from a chest trauma or surgery

Left untreated, pericardial effusion can cause cardiac tamponade, congestive heart failure, or death.

What are the symptoms of pericardial effusion?

Pericardial effusion can come on quickly (acute) or develop slowly over time (chronic). A small pericardial effusion may not cause symptoms, but will appear in imaging tests.

Symptoms of pericardial effusion may include:

  • Chest pain or pressure

  • Shortness of breath

  • Nausea

  • Difficulty swallowing

If your disease has progressed to cardiac tamponade, your lips and skin may appear blue, you may go into shock, or you may lose some mental function. Tamponade is life threatening and requires immediate medical attention.


Advanced imaging techniques are often used to diagnose a pericardial effusion.

Cardiac catheterization

Cardiac catheterization is a minimally invasive way to diagnose and treat a variety of heart and vascular conditions by guiding thin, flexible tubes called catheters through blood vessels to problem areas.

Computerized tomography (CT) scan

The cardiac computed tomography scan, or cardiac CT, uses X-rays to create three-dimensional images of your heart and blood vessels.


An echocardiogram uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of your heart.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

An electrocardiogram, also known as an ECG, measures the heart’s electrical activity.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Magnetic resonance imaging, better known as cardiac MRI, is a combination of radio waves, magnets and computer technology to create images of your heart and blood vessels.

Stress tests

Stress tests are used to assess how your heart works during physical activity. There are several types of stress tests, including treadmill or bike stress tests, nuclear stress tests, stress echocardiograms and chemically induced stress tests.


Treatment for pericardial effusion will be determined by the condition that caused it. Your doctor will work with other specialties to develop and implement an individualized plan to treat your unique condition. This could include medication or more advanced treatments, including:

Heart surgery

Heart surgery is an option to treat many heart conditions. You may need heart surgery either as a lifesaving procedure or when other treatments haven’t worked.

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