Pericarditis Affects the Young But Often Goes Away

Published April 15, 2008

Posted April 15, 2007 – It’s a scary thing to hear that a young, vibrant person is stricken with a heart ailment. However, in the case of six-time Grammy winner Toni Braxton, who was recently hospitalized with chest pains and halted her Las Vegas performances, experts say the disease she’s reportedly suffering from  most often goes away after treatment.

While the exact cause of Braxton’s current bout of chest pains has not been made public, the singer was previously treated for pericarditis, a swelling and irritation of the pericardium, the thin sac-like membrane that surrounds the heart,

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Under normal circumstances, the two-layered pericardial sac that surrounds the heart contains a small amount of lubricating fluid. In pericarditis the sac becomes inflamed, and the resulting friction from the inflamed sac rubbing against the outer layer of your heart leads to chest pain.

If you have acute pericarditis, the most common symptom is sharp, stabbing chest pain behind the breastbone or in the left side of your chest. Other signs and symptoms often associated with pericarditis include:

  • Shortness of breath when reclining
  • Low-grade fever
  • An overall sense of weakness, fatigue or feeling sick
  • Dry cough
  • Abdominal or leg swelling

What’s scary is that, at times, it may be difficult to distinguish pericardial pain from the pain that occurs with a heart attack.

In most cases doctors are unable to determine an exact cause for the disease. Pericarditis can also develop after surgery.  But in young people, most often a viral infection is to blame, The virus could be as simple as those that cause upper respiratory ailments such as a sore throat or fever, or you can have the virus with no symptoms at all, experts say. Kidney failure, AIDS, TB and cancer also can trigger pericarditis.

Mild cases may improve on their own, according to the information provided by experts at the Mayo Clinic’s Web site. Treatment for more-severe cases may include medications and, rarely, surgery.

It is not uncommon for someone to get the disease in their late teens or early 20s, even though it is more common in people a little older, says Dr. Sharonne Hayes, cardiologist and director of Mayo Clinic's Women's Heart Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“The most common kind of pericarditis in young people is probably due to inflammation related to a viral infection,” says Hayes, who is not involved with Braxton’s treatment. It's like when you get an upper resipratory infection that settles in your chest and becomes bronchitis, only in the case of pericarditis, the infection settles in the sac around the heart, she explains.  

There’s no evidence that the disease strikes African Americans with any more frequency than other ethnic groups. In fact, pericarditis isn’t all that common at all, Dr. Hayes says. But the good news is that once treated, the disease usually goes away without a trace. 

“The vast majority recover fully,” she says. “They feel sick a while, and it may take a while. …It’s painful, but they get well with no residuals. They typically recover.”

Doctors recommend that if you suffer any of the symptoms of the disease, you should seek immediate medical care. For more information about pericarditis symptoms and treatments, go to the Mayo Clinic Web site.

Written by BET-Staff

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