Rheumatic Heart Disease

Cardiovascular problems
Cardiovascular problems. Getty Images/Science Photo Library - PASIEKA/Brand X Pictures


Rheumatic (roo-MAT-ik) heart disease is a condition whereby permanent damage to the heart valves is caused by untreated rheumatic fever. The damage from rheumatic fever can result in permanent heart valve disorders.

Causes of Rheumatic Fever

Rheumatic fever is an inflammatory disease caused by a bacterium known as Group A Streptococcus (GAS).Upon exposure, the body will typically produce antibodies to destroy the bacteria.

Yet, because of the similarity between the bacterial cell wall and heart tissue, the antibodies may also work against the heart valves, resulting in heart valve damage.

Over time, the damage caused results in rheumatic heart disease (RHD). RHD leads to heart failure, stroke, infection of the heart valves, and death. Rheumatic heart disease is the most prevalent form of heart disease in children.

Symptoms of Rheumatic Fever

Symptoms of rheumatic fever are typically exhibited two to four weeks after a strep infection. In some cases, the strep infection may have gone undiagnosed because it had been too mild.

  • Fever
  • Swelling of the joints
  • Small bumps under the skin
  • Red, raised rash
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach pain

Risk Factors for Rheumatic Fever

Rheumatic fever is not a common condition except in children with untreated or inadequately treated strep infections. Children between 5 to 15 years of age are at the most risk of developing rheumatic fever if they experience frequent strep infections.

Results of Untreated Rheumatic Fever

Rheumatic fever can cause serious permanent damage to the valves of the heart. It typically damages the mitral valve, aortic valve or both. Valves that have been damaged by rheumatic fever may not be able to fully open causing a narrowing of the valve resulting in an incomplete blood supply to the heart.

Rheumatic fever can also inflame the heart muscle, a condition known as myocarditis, or the outer covering of the heart, a condition known as pericarditis.

Symptoms of Rheumatic Heart Disease

The symptoms of rheumatic heart disease may not appear until several years after the original illness.

Symptoms of rheumatic heart disease may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Stroke
  • Fatigue
  • Palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting
  • Swollen ankles, wrists or stomach

Treatment of Rheumatic Heart Disease

If heart damage is diagnosed early, a daily dose of antibiotics for an extended period of time may be prescribed. It will help to prevent the recurrence of rheumatic fever and the occurrence of endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves or the lining of the heart.

Additional treatment of rheumatic heart disease will depend on the amount of heart damage sustained but may include surgery to replace damaged heart valves.

Prevention of Rheumatic Heart Disease

While not all sore throats lead to strep infections, the immediate diagnosis and treatment of a strep infection with antibiotics will prevent the development of rheumatic fever which, ultimately, prevents rheumatic heart disease.

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