The pericardium surrounds and protects the heart. When it becomes injured or infected, fluid can build up between its layers. Pericardial effusion, as the condition is called, strains the heart’s ability to pump blood.

This condition can have serious complications, including death if it isn’t treated. Here, we’ll cover the causes, symptoms, and treatments for fluid buildup around your heart.

Serious medical condition

Your best chance at successfully treating fluid around the heart is getting an early diagnosis. Speak to a doctor if you’re concerned that you may have pericardial effusion.

The causes of fluid around your heart can vary widely.


This condition refers to inflammation of the pericardium — the thin sac that surrounds your heart. It often occurs after you’ve had a respiratory infection. The American Heart Association points out that men between the ages of 20 and 50 years old are the most likely to experience pericarditis.

There are several different types of pericarditis:

Bacterial pericarditis

Staphylococcus, pneumococcus, streptococcus, and other kinds of bacteria can enter the fluid that surrounds the pericardium and cause bacterial pericarditis.

Viral pericarditis

Viral pericarditis can be a complication of a viral infection in your body. Gastrointestinal viruses and HIV can cause this kind of pericarditis.

Idiopathic pericarditis

Idiopathic pericarditis refers to pericarditis with no cause that doctors can determine.

Congestive heart failure

Nearly 5 million Americans live with congestive heart failure. This condition occurs when your heart isn’t pumping blood efficiently. It can lead to fluid around your heart and other complications.

Injury or trauma

An injury or trauma can puncture the pericardium or injure your heart itself, causing fluid to build up around your heart.

Cancer or cancer treatment

Certain cancers can cause a pericardial effusion. Lung cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, and lymphoma can cause fluid to build up around your heart.

In some cases, the chemotherapy drugs doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) can cause a pericardial effusion. This complication is rare.

Heart attack

A heart attack can lead to your pericardium being inflamed. This inflammation can cause fluid around your heart.

Kidney failure

Kidney failure with uremia can lead to your heart having trouble pumping blood. For some people, this results in pericardial effusion.

Fluid around your lungs is called a pleural effusion. There are some conditions that can lead to fluid around your heart and your lungs, as well. These include:

You may have fluid around your heart and not have any signs or symptoms. If you are able to notice symptoms, they may include:

  • chest pain
  • a feeling of “fullness” in your chest
  • discomfort when you lie down
  • shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • difficulty breathing

If a doctor suspects that you have fluid around your heart, you’ll be tested before you receive a diagnosis. Tests you might need to diagnose this condition include:

If your doctor diagnoses fluid around your heart, they may need to remove some of the fluid to test it for infection or cancer.

Treating fluid around the heart will depend on the underlying cause, as well as your age and your general health.

If your symptoms aren’t severe and you’re in stable condition, you may be given antibiotics to treat an infection, aspirin (Bufferin) to numb discomfort, or both. If the fluid around your lungs is related to inflammation, you may also be given nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil).

If fluid around your heart continues to build up, the pericardium can put so much pressure on your heart that it becomes dangerous. In these cases, your doctor may recommend draining the fluid through a catheter inserted into your chest or open-heart surgery to repair your pericardium and your heart.

Fluid around the heart has many causes. Some of these causes put your health at a higher risk than others. Once your doctor has determined you have this condition, they will help you make decisions about treatment.

Depending on your age, your symptoms, and your general health, you may be able to manage this condition with over-the-counter or prescription medication while you wait for the fluid to be absorbed into your body.

In some cases, more drastic action — like draining the fluid or open-heart surgery — become necessary. Your best chance at successfully treating this condition is getting an early diagnosis. Speak to a doctor if you’re concerned that you may have fluid around your heart.