Background. The optimal therapy for symptomatic pericardial effusions remains controversial. This paper compares outcomes after the two most commonly used techniques, percutaneous catheter drainage and operative subxiphoid pericardial drainage. Methods. We performed a 5-year retrospective, single-institution study to analyze outcomes after either percutaneous catheter drainage or subxiphoid open pericardial drainage for symptomatic pericardial effusions. Results. Symptomatic pericardial effusions in 246 patients were treated by open pericardiotomy and tube drainage (n = 150) or percutaneous catheter drainage (n = 96). Drainage duration, total drainage volume, and duration of follow-up (2.6 years) were similar in both groups. Effusions were classified malignant in 79 (32%) patients and benign in 167 (68%) patients. No direct procedural mortality occurred, but the hospital mortality was 16 patients (10.7%) in the open group and 22 (22.9%) in the percutaneous group (p = 0.01) The 5-year survival rate was 51% in the open group versus 45% in the percutaneous group, despite a greater percentage of the open group having a preoperative malignant diagnosis (35% versus 28%). Symptomatic effusions recurred in 16.5% of the percutaneous group compared with 4.6% in the open group (p = 0.002), and sclerosis did not appear to reduce recurrence rates (10.7% with sclerosis versus 15.6% without; p > 0.05). The diagnosis of malignancy was confirmed in 16 of 27 (59%) percutaneous procedures performed on patients with known malignancy. In the open group, cytologic and pathologic evaluation of the pericardial specimen revealed malignancy in 32 of 52 (62%) patients with known malignancy. Conclusions. Subxiphoid and percutaneous pericardial drainage of symptomatic pericardial effusions can be performed safely; however, death occurs from underlying disease. Open subxiphoid pericardial drainage with pericardial biopsy appears to decrease recurrence but does not improve diagnostic accuracy of malignancy over cytology alone.