What is rheumatic heart disease?
Rheumatic heart disease describes a group of short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) heart disorders that can occur as a result of rheumatic fever. One common result of rheumatic fever is heart valve damage. This damage to the heart valves may lead to a valve disorder.
Rheumatic fever is an inflammatory disease that may affect many connective tissues of the body, especially those of the heart, joints, brain or skin. It usually starts out as a strep throat (streptococcal) infection. Anyone can get acute rheumatic fever, but it usually occurs in children between the ages of 5 and 15 years. About 60% of people with rheumatic fever develop some degree of subsequent heart disease.
Every part of the heart, including the outer sac (the pericardium), the inner lining (the endocardium) and the valves may be damaged by inflammation caused by acute rheumatic fever. However, the most common form of rheumatic heart disease affects the heart valves, particularly the mitral valve. It may take several years after an episode of rheumatic fever for valve damage to develop or symptoms to appear.
Antibiotics can prevent streptococcal infection from developing into rheumatic fever. Any child with a persistent sore throat should have a throat culture to check for strep infection. Penicillin or another antibiotic will usually prevent strep throat from developing into rheumatic fever.
Symptoms of heart valve problems, which are often the result of rheumatic heart disease, can include: chest pain, excessive fatigue, heart palpitations (when the heart flutters or misses beats), a thumping sensation in the chest, shortness of breath, and swollen ankles, wrists or stomach.
If heart damage from rheumatic fever is identified in childhood or young adulthood, daily antibiotics may be required until the age of 25 or 30, to help prevent recurrence of rheumatic fever and avoid the development of infective bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves or lining of the heart. Additional treatment will depend on the type of heart damage.
To find useful services to help you on your journey with heart disease, see our list of government and community agencies.