Rheumatic heart disease is a serious and potentially life threatening condition where the valves of the heart become damaged. This damage can occur following one or more episodes of rheumatic fever. This refers to an autoimmune response to group A Streptococcus (group A strep) bacteria.

Group A strep can cause infections such as strep throat or scarlet fever. These infections can trigger inflammation in the body, including the heart and its valves. Without treatment, it can permanently damage the heart valves.

Researchers estimate that more than 33 million people had rheumatic heart disease in 2015. They add that the condition leads to around 320,000 deaths each year.

Read on to learn more about rheumatic heart disease, including its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

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Rheumatic heart disease is a condition that affects the heart valves. Specifically, the valves become damaged due to inflammation in the heart tissue.

The heart valves are important to ensure blood flows through the heart as it should. They also prevent the backflow of blood. Therefore, damage to the heart valves can cause serious health conditions.

Rheumatic heart disease can begin as a throat infection by Streptococcus pyogenes — a type of group A Strep bacteria.

Infections with group A strep can pass easily between people in the same way as other upper respiratory tract infections. For example, they can spread through respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes.

If a person has an infection with group A strep bacteria, they are at risk of developing rheumatic fever, which can progress to rheumatic heart disease. People are more at risk of these infections in large crowded places, such as schools, day care centers, or colleges.

Anyone can develop rheumatic fever, but it is more common in children aged 5 to 15 years. It is very rare in children younger than 3 years old as well as adults.

A person who has had rheumatic fever previously is more likely to develop it again if they contract strep throat or scarlet fever.

Rheumatic heart disease typically affects people from low or middle income countries who have inadequate access to healthcare.

Rheumatic fever can cause rheumatic heart disease, specifically when it affects the heart valves.

In some people, repeated group A strep infections can cause the immune system to produce antibodies that attack healthy tissue. This can result in inflammation and scarring of the heart valves.

Explore the link between group A strep infections and rheumatic fever here.

Rheumatic heart disease symptoms can vary depending on the severity and extent of the damage to the heart valve. In some cases, there may be no symptoms, while in others, they may include:

Some symptoms of rheumatic fever can include:

  • fever
  • pain in the joints, especially the knees, ankles, elbows, and wrists
  • fatigue
  • jerky, uncontrollable body movements

Learn more about the symptoms of rheumatic fever here.

Doctors use a combination of a person’s medical history, physical examination, and other tests to diagnose rheumatic heart disease.

The doctor will ask about any past strep throat infections and whether the person has ever had rheumatic fever. They also ask about any symptoms and family history of heart disease.

During a physical examination, the doctor will check for signs of heart valve damage, such as a heart murmur. They may also listen to the lungs for any signs of congestion.

They may order tests, such as:

  • a chest X-ray to check for an enlarged heart
  • an EKG, which measures the heart’s electrical activity, to look for evidence of heart valve damage
  • a blood test to check if the body is producing an atypical immune response or inflammation
  • a heart ultrasound

There is no cure for rheumatic heart disease, and the damage to the heart valves may be lifelong.

People with severe rheumatic heart disease often need surgery to replace or repair damaged heart valves.

Depending on the severity of the heart damage, they may also need medication to treat heart failure or heart rhythm abnormalities. They may need medications to thin the blood and reduce the risk of blood clots.

People may not know they have rheumatic heart disease until they have heart problems later in life. This is because the initial symptoms can be mild or nonexistent.

However, rheumatic heart disease can lead to serious complications, such as:

People with rheumatic heart disease must consult their doctor regularly to monitor their heart’s condition and ensure it is as healthy as possible. They must also take any medications as a doctor recommends.

Individuals with rheumatic heart disease should avoid getting strep throat or scarlet fever. They can do this by washing their hands often and avoiding close contact with people with illnesses. In addition, doctors may prescribe antibiotics to help prevent group A strep infections.

It is also important for people with rheumatic heart disease to eat a nutritious diet, get enough exercise and rest, and avoid smoking, if applicable. These lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of complications and help maintain heart health.

Rheumatic heart disease affects females disproportionately. Their risk of developing the condition is twice as high as it is in males.

Rheumatic heart disease is the leading cause of maternal heart complications in pregnancy. Pregnant people with the condition are at risk of developing complications such as heart arrhythmias and heart failure. This is because the increased blood volume in the heart can increase the pressure on the valves.

It is also not uncommon for people to be unaware that they have rheumatic heart disease until they become pregnant.

Rheumatic heart disease is a condition that affects the heart valves. It occurs due to strep throat or scarlet fever. The condition may lead to serious complications later in life.

There is no cure for rheumatic heart disease, but people can manage it with medication and surgery. Individuals with rheumatic heart disease must consult their doctor regularly and take any medications as necessary. They should also take precautionary measures to avoid contracting infection with group A strep.