Heart Infections: Types and More

Medically Reviewed By Angela Ryan Lee, MD, FACC
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A heart infection is a serious infection that can lead to damage and life threatening complications. Bacteria, viruses, and, rarely, fungi can cause a heart infection. Types of heart infections can include pericarditis, endocarditis, and myocarditis.

This article will explain what a heart infection is and the different types, causes, and treatments.

What is a heart infection?

Heart balloon
Giada Canu/Stocksy United

A heart infection occurs when damage from a virus or bacteria leads to inflammation of your heart’s inner lining, the valves, or the heart muscle.

Your heart has three main layers, any of which can be the site of a heart infection. Depending on what type of heart infection it is, symptoms may include:

Visit our hub to learn more about heart health.

What are the types of heart infections?

There are three primary types of heart infections, all of which can cause various symptoms. There are three primary types of heart infections, also known as cardiac infections, all of which can cause various symptoms.

Diagnosing heart infections or any heart issue may include:

Endocarditis

Endocarditis is a rare infection or inflammation of the endocardium. This is the innermost layer of the heart. The endocardium lines the inside of the four heart chambers and the four heart valves.

Causes

Endocarditis can result from bacteria or fungus entering the bloodstream.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of endocarditis include:

Life-threatening symptoms of endocarditis include having a stroke and heart failure, a condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood to supply the body efficiently.

Risk factors

Risk factors for endocarditis include:

Treatment

Most cases of endocarditis are treated with antibiotics, but some may need surgery to repair the damage done to the heart.

Read more about endocarditis.

Pericarditis

Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium, a sac-like structure of two layers surrounding the heart. Fluid between the two layers keeps them separate, helping to hold the heart in place and lubricate the beating heart.

It is often acute, meaning it comes on suddenly and can clear up quickly, but can be chronic, meaning it comes on gradually and can last a long period of time.

Common symptoms include chest pain, which can often feel like a heart attack. Chest pain may be sharp and worse with taking a deep breath and laying flat.

Causes

Causes include:

Treatment

Treatment includes anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen, steroids, or antibiotics if caused by a bacterial infection.

Read more about pericarditis.

Myocarditis

Myocarditis is, again, a rare infection of the heart resulting from a viral infection.

The inflammation in myocarditis can damage the heart muscle, impairing the heart’s ability to pump blood and oxygen to the body.

It can affect people with no pre-existing health conditions, children, and healthy, young athletic people.

Symptoms

Symptoms of myocarditis are often difficult to pinpoint since they mimic other cardiac problems, and patients can often be asymptomatic. However, they can include:

Causes

Causes may include:

  • viral infections
  • autoimmune disorders
  • bacterial infections
  • certain drugs and environmental toxins

Treatment

Treatment of myocarditis depends on the underlying cause. Medications such as corticosteroids and other anti-inflammatory medications may be used. In severe cases, more invasive treatments may be required, such as the placement of a ventricular assist device or a heart transplant.

Read more about myocarditis.

What are the symptoms of a heart infection?

Heart infection symptoms can be obvious and develop quickly or can be vague and develop gradually over months.

The most common symptoms of a heart infection are:

  • chest pain, especially with breathing
  • heart palpitations
  • fatigue
  • fever, chills, and sweats
  • shortness of breath
  • swelling in the abdomen or lower extremities

When should you contact a doctor?

General symptoms of a heart infection include chest pain, fever, and shortness of breath. Some symptoms, such as chest pain and shortness of breath, overlap with those of a heart attack.

In some cases, a heart infection can cause life threatening complications. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life threatening symptoms, including:

  • chest pain
  • confusion, disorientation, or difficulty understanding speech
  • drooping on one side of the face
  • severe headache
  • slurred or garbled speech, or inability to speak
  • sudden vision changes
  • sudden weakness, numbness, or paralysis on one side of the body or face

Even if you do not have these potentially life threatening symptoms, it is wise to seek medical care for any symptoms of heart infection.

Recognizing the signs of a heart attack

A heart infection may show similar signs to a heart attack. It is important to recognize the signs of a heart attack, including:

Learn more about heart attack.

What causes heart infections?

Bacteria and viruses are the most common cause of heart infections.

This can happen as the result of infections in:

  • the skin
  • mouth
  • lungs
  • gut or urinary tract

It can also happen when you have gum disease or undergo certain dental procedures.

Heart valves are vulnerable to infection because they do not have a direct blood supply. This makes it difficult for the immune system to reach them.

What are the potential complications of heart infection?

Complications of a heart infection can be serious and life threatening. Left untreated, endocarditis can lead to stroke and damage to the heart valves and lining.

This can also occur in severe cases despite starting antibiotic treatment. Surgery may be necessary to prevent stroke, or repair or replace damaged heart valves.

Frequently asked questions

Angela Ryan Lee, MD, FACC, has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

How long can you live with a heart infection?

Life expectancy for heart infections depends on several factors, including:

  • the type of infection
  • the severity of the condition
  • age
  • other health conditions

What are the warning signs of endocarditis?

Common warning signs or symptoms include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, fever, and fatigue.

How fast does endocarditis develop?

Endocarditis can develop suddenly, as in acute infective endocarditis, or over a period of months, as in subacute bacterial endocarditis.

Summary

Heart infections usually result from viral or bacterial infections. Types of heart infections include endocarditis, myocarditis, and pericarditis.

Depending on the type of heart infection, symptoms may include shortness of breath, fever, fatigue, and heart palpitations.

Treatment often includes antibiotics and medications and may also include surgery if there’s extensive damage to the heart.

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Medical Reviewer: Angela Ryan Lee, MD, FACC
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 28
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