Pericardial Effusion

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Pericardial effusion is an accumulation of excess fluid between the layers of the sac that surrounds the heart. Symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain. Treatments are available to remove the fluid and prevent recurrence.

Pericardial effusion is a common symptom of pericardial mesothelioma, a rare cancer that forms in the lining of the heart.

This lining, known as the pericardium, is made up of two layers. Normally, a small amount of fluid exists between these layers to lubricate the lining and offer protection around the heart.

Pericardial mesothelioma and other conditions can cause excess fluid to collect in the heart lining. Other causes of pericardial effusion include inflammation, infection and other primary cancers of the chest.

Excess fluid can increase pressure on the heart, a condition called cardiac tamponade. This prevents the chambers from filling completely and results in poor circulation and inadequate oxygen supply.

Treatment for pericardial effusion involves minor or major surgical procedures.

Pericardial Effusion Symptoms and Causes

Not everyone with pericardial effusion will experience symptoms.

Symptoms of pericardial effusion include:

  • Shortness of breath or breathing difficulties
  • Uncomfortable breathing while lying down
  • Chest pain (commonly on the left side)
  • A sense of fullness or pressure in the chest

Pericardial effusion may be caused by pericardial mesothelioma tumors growing on the heart lining.

Other causes of pericardial effusion include:

  • Pleural mesothelioma or other cancers of the chest
  • Inflammation of the heart lining
  • Bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic infection
  • Certain chemotherapy drugs such as doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide
  • Radiation therapy
  • Underactive thyroid

Diagnostic Process for Pericardial Effusions

A variety of tests are used to diagnose pericardial effusion.

  • Medical exam
  • Chest X-ray
  • Chest CT scan
  • Heart MRI
  • Heart ultrasound (echocardiogram)

Pericardial Effusion Treatment

Pericardial effusion caused by mesothelioma is treated with procedures that drain the fluid or surgically remove the lining where the fluid collects.


A pericardiocentesis is a minor surgical procedure that drains fluid from around the heart.

A local anesthetic is administered and a thin needle is inserted into the pericardial lining. The needle is guided by a heart ultrasound to ensure accuracy and prevent injury.

The needle is replaced by a catheter. The catheter drains the excess fluid, which may take several hours.

There is a chance the fluid could return after a pericardiocentesis. Patients with recurring pericardial effusion may be candidates for a pericardiectomy to prevent recurrence.


A pericardiectomy, or pericardial window, is a surgery that removes part or all of the heart lining. It is used to treat pericardial effusion, inflammation of the pericardium (pericarditis) and pericardial mesothelioma.

A partial pericardiectomy removes a diseased portion of the heart lining. A total pericardiectomy removes nearly all of the lining.

The surgery prevents fluid from accumulating again. Recovery in the hospital takes one to two weeks.

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Registered Nurse and Patient Advocate

Karen Selby joined in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the regional director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.

Matt Mauney, Content Writer at
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4 Cited Article Sources

  1. Mayo Clinic. (2017, August 10). Pericardial effusion.
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  2. Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Pericardial Effusion.
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  3. Sagrista-Sauleda, J., Merce, A.S., & Soler-Soler, J. (2011). Diagnosis and management of pericardial effusion.
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  4. Medscape. (2017, December 20). Pericardial Effusion. Retrieved from:

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Last Modified November 14, 2018

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