Bacterial Endocarditis and Pericarditis


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a heart with subacute bacterial endocarditis. There are thick, swollen strands in the heart. There are also large lumpy structures at the ends of the chordae tendinae.
The heart of an individual who had subacute bacterial endocarditis of the mitral valve. Bacterial vegetations are visible on the valve tissues. (credit: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

The endocardium is a tissue layer that lines the muscles and valves of the heart. This tissue can become infected by a variety of bacteria, including gram-positive cocci such as Staphylococcus aureus, viridans streptococci, and Enterococcus faecalis, and the gram-negative so-called HACEK bacilli: Haemophilus spp., Actinobacillus actinomycetemcomitansCardiobacterium hominisEikenella corrodens, and Kingella kingae. The resulting inflammation is called endocarditis, which can be described as either acute or subacute. Causative agents typically enter the bloodstream during accidental or intentional breaches in the normal barrier defenses (e.g., dental procedures, body piercings, catheterization, wounds). Individuals with preexisting heart damage, prosthetic valves and other cardiac devices, and those with a history of rheumatic fever have a higher risk for endocarditis. This disease can rapidly destroy the heart valves and, if untreated, lead to death in just a few days.

In subacute bacterial endocarditis, heart valve damage occurs slowly over a period of months. During this time, blood clots form in the heart, and these protect the bacteria from phagocytes. These patches of tissue-associated bacteria are called vegetations. The resulting damage to the heart, in part resulting from the immune response causing fibrosis of heart valves, can necessitate heart valve replacement. Outward signs of subacute endocarditis may include a fever.

Diagnosis of infective endocarditis is determined using the combination of blood cultures, echocardiogram, and clinical symptoms. In both acute and subacute endocarditis, treatment typically involves relatively high doses of intravenous antibiotics as determined by antimicrobial susceptibility testing. Acute endocarditis is often treated with a combination of ampicillin, nafcillin, and gentamicin for synergistic coverage of Staphylococcus spp. and Streptococcus spp. Prosthetic-valve endocarditis is often treated with a combination of vancomycin, rifampin, and gentamicin. Rifampin is necessary to treat individuals with infection of prosthetic valves or other foreign bodies because rifampin can penetrate the biofilm of most of the pathogens that infect these devices.

Staphylcoccus spp. and Streptococcus spp. can also infect and cause inflammation in the tissues surrounding the heart, a condition called acute pericarditis. Pericarditis is marked by chest pain, difficulty breathing, and a dry cough. In most cases, pericarditis is self-limiting and clinical intervention is not necessary. Diagnosis is made with the aid of a chest radiograph, electrocardiogram, echocardiogram, aspirate of pericardial fluid, or biopsy of pericardium. Antibacterial medications may be prescribed for infections associated with pericarditis; however, pericarditis can also be caused other pathogens, including viruses (e.g., echovirus, influenza virus), fungi (e.g., Histoplasma spp., Coccidioides spp.), and eukaryotic parasites (e.g., Toxoplasma spp.).


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: