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Signs of Fluid Around the Heart

author image Lori Newell
I hold a Master's degree in exercise physiology/health promotion. I am a certified fitness specialist through the American College of Spots Medicine and an IYT certified yoga teacher. I have over 25 years experience teaching classes to both general public and those with chronic illness. The above allows me to write directly to the reader based on personal experiences.
Signs of Fluid Around the Heart
Elderly man coughing next to nurse Photo Credit Jovanmandic/iStock/Getty Images

Fluid around the heart is called pericardial effusion, or just pericarditis. It is a very serious condition that can be the result of disease, injury or complications from surgery. Viruses, bacterial infections, chemotherapy and certain medications can also cause this disease. Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of this condition will help you get care as soon as possible to minimize the effects of this disease. This condition can be successfully managed if it is addressed promptly and then followed carefully.


Surrounding the heart is a fluid-filled sac called the pericardium. Normally this sac contains only a small amount of fluid. If disease or injury causes additional fluid to build up in the pericardium, then problems arise. The pericardium will begin to put pressure on your heart muscle, which hinders its ability to pump properly. If left untreated, you can suffer heart failure, and this condition can be life-threatening.

Initial Symptoms

Early symptoms of fluid around the heart include feeling out of breath, even when lying down. Breathing often becomes easier when you sit up or lean forward. Other signs include feeling lightheaded or dizzy, chest pain that is sharp and stabbing, chest tightness and a dry, chronic cough. You may have difficulty or pain when swallowing and feel nauseous.

Progressive Symptoms

If left untreated, pericarditis can cause a rapid pulse, a low-grade fever and more severe chest pain that can radiate to the neck, shoulder, back or abdomen. You may also feel fatigued and weak and have circulation problems. Taking deep breaths can become difficult and painful. In severe cases, your lips and skin develop a bluish color, and you may experience mental confusion. This condition can also cause you to go into shock.


Fluid around the heart can cause enlargement of the veins in the neck, low blood pressure and edema -- swelling and fluid accumulation -- in other areas of the body such as the ankles. In later stages, the pericardium may place so much pressure on the chest that the chambers of the heart collapse. If this happens, your body will not be able to receive the blood and oxygen it needs, and this can lead to death.


Pericarditis can be mild or quite severe -- even life-threatening. It is important for you to keep track of your symptoms and work with your health care providers to best manage this condition.

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