Rheumatic fever is a disease that is characterized by fever and joint pain, which is an outcome of improperly treated strep throat and scarlet fever. Learn about its causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
Rheumatic fever is a serious inflammatory disease that arises as a complication of partially treated strep throat or scarlet fever. These infections are caused by group A streptococcus bacteria.
Children from ages 5 and 15 are the most commonly affected with rheumatic fever, but it can develop in infants and adults also. This type of fever can cause permanent damage to the heart valves and also lead to heart failure. Prompt treatment reduces inflammation, prevents complications, reduces the severity of symptoms, and prevents recurrence.
Not all cases of strep throat lead to rheumatic fever. When a strep throat infection or scarlet fever has not been completely treated, the bacteria stay on. They act by confusing the body's immune system to target certain tissues of the body and treat them as foreign agents. This process, in turn, causes inflammation of the heart, skin, joints, and CNS (central nervous system).
History: Recent strep infection.
Age: Children from 5 to 10 years of age.
Environmental factors: Overcrowded areas with poor sanitation.
The symptoms of rheumatic fever vary. The patient can have one or more symptoms, which can change over the course of the disease. Symptoms of rheumatic generally start after 2 to 4 weeks of strep throat infection. The symptoms that are caused due to inflammation of heart, skin, joints, central nervous system are:
Joint swelling and pain.
Fleeting joint pain.
Warmth and redness of joint.
Sydenham chorea - jerky and uncontrolled movements in the face, hands, and feet.
See a doctor if:
- you had a recent throat infection and develop fever soon after,
- you have had rheumatic fever in the past,
- and you have it again.
Diagnosis of rheumatic fever is based on medical history, physical examinations, and a few lab tests, as there is no specific test for it. It includes:
History of recent strep throat infection.
Fever with skin rashes or nodules.
Examination of joints to look for swelling.
Blood test to detect strep bacteria.
C-reactive protein and erythrocyte sedimentation rate to check for inflammation.
Heart monitoring with ECG and echocardiogram.
Treatment aims to destroy the streptococcal bacteria, relieve symptoms including inflammation, and prevent a recurrence. The treatment options include:
Antibiotics - The doctor will prescribe antibiotics for a long time to prevent the disease from coming back. The doctor might prescribe Penicillins or some other antibiotic. Antibiotics are given for 5 years or until 21 years of age, whichever is longer, to prevent recurrences. In the case of heart inflammation, antibiotics are given for 10 years.
Anti-inflammatory medicines - To reduce pain and inflammation, medicines such as Aspirin or Naproxen are prescribed. In the case of severe inflammation, corticosteroids are given.
Anticonvulsant medicines - For Sydenham chorea, antiseizure medications like Valproic acid or Carbamazepine are prescribed.
Bed rest - Best rest and restricted activities until pain and inflammation have subsided.
The possible complications of rheumatic fever include:
Carditis - Inflammation of the heart.
Aortic valve stenosis - Narrowing of the heart’s aortic valve.
Rheumatic heart disease - Permanently damaged heart valves.
Aortic regurgitation - Blood flows in the wrong direction in the heart due to a leak in the aortic valve.
Atrial fibrillation - Irregular heartbeat in the upper two heart chambers.
Heart failure - Heart is unable to pump blood properly.
Failure to treat this condition can also result in stroke, permanent heart damage, and death.
Rheumatic heart disease, otherwise called RHD, is a severe complication of rheumatic fever. RHD is long-term damage caused to the valves and tissues of the heart due to rheumatic fever. In severe cases, there is scarring and irreversible damage to the heart. If left untreated, it can lead to heart failure, where the heart is unable to pump blood to the rest of the body properly. This causes problems with blood flow through the heart valves, which requires surgical correction. The most worrying factor is that it can go undetected for years. If symptoms do pop up, it can vary as feet swelling, chest pain, weakness, and tiredness.
Improperly treated rheumatic fever can result in gradual inflammation and deposition of calcium crystals inside and around the heart valves. Acute rheumatic fever can result in inflammation of one or more parts of the heart:
Pericarditis - Surface of the heart.
Endocarditis - Within the heart.
Myocarditis - The heart muscle itself.
If the patient develops endocarditis, the inflammatory response results in permanent damage to one or more of the heart valves. This damage usually worsens with time.
Almost 50 % of people who suffer from acute rheumatic fever develop rheumatic heart disease. And most cases of RHD are diagnosed a decade or two after the episode of rheumatic fever.
Depending on the severity of the condition, people with RHD show the following signs and symptoms:
Swollen and tender joints.
Chest pain or discomfort.
Swollen feet and ankle.
Rheumatic heart disease can lead to mitral valve stenosis, mitral regurgitation, aortic stenosis, aortic regurgitation, tricuspid regurgitation, atrial fibrillation, and heart failure. Preventing and treating rheumatic fever is the ideal way of dealing with rheumatic heart disease.
Getting proper treatment for strep throat and scarlet fever is the best way to prevent rheumatic fever. Make sure your child takes all prescribed medicines properly. Things you can teach them to prevent all types of infections are:
Wash their hands frequently with proper hand washing methods and steps.
Not to come in contact with people who are sick.
Not to share personal items with others.
Most people get rheumatic fever when they are not properly or completely treated for strep throat or scarlet fever. This is an infection caused by the group A streptococcus bacteria.
Rheumatic fever can be cured by destroying the remaining group A strep bacteria. For this, the doctor will prescribe long-term antibiotics, painkillers, and if your child has sudden tremors then anticonvulsant medications.
As there is no specific test for rheumatic fever, the doctor will conduct a throat swab test to check for strep infection and will check for inflammation with the help of tests like C-reactive protein and erythrocyte sedimentation rate.
The one-year survival rate of people with rheumatic heart diseases is approximately 97%, and that at five years is between 79 and 83 %
Depending on the severity and complications, it can take from 6 weeks to 6 months for a person to recover from rheumatic fever. When rheumatic fever affects the heart muscles and affects its functioning, it becomes challenging to treat.
There is no proven natural way to treat rheumatic heart disease. Antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs are needed for treatment. If left untreated, it might affect the heart valve, affecting the heart’s ability to pump blood and leading to heart failure.
The possible complications include:
- Heart failure.
- Ruptured heart valve.
- Bacterial endocarditis.
- Problems during childbirth.
Eat a balanced diet and lead a healthy lifestyle. Avoid oily and fatty food items, and consume heart-healthy foods. Limit drinking, be more active, and do not smoke.
Complications of rheumatic heart disease, such as narrowing of heart valves, heart valve leak, and damage to the heart muscles, are unfortunately permanent. In some cases, heart damage occurs after 10 to 20 years of rheumatic fever.
Yes, rheumatic fever and heart disease have a genetic precursor. Environmental factors and multiple genes interact with each other, making a person more susceptible to these illnesses.
Last reviewed at:
10 Nov 2020 - 4 min read
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