Rheumatic fever can cause long-term damage to heart valves

Rheumatic heart disease is caused by permanent damage to the heart valves by rheumatic fever, which is caused by a strep throat infection that goes untreated. Rheumatic fever is caused by group A streptococcus bacteria that affects the connective tissues of the heart, skin, brain and joints.

Symptoms include swelling of the knees, ankles, elbows and wrists, and pain that moves from joint to joint. Rheumatic fever can affect the heart as well, causing scarring of the heart valves, which can lead to long-term stress on the heart (rheumatic heart disease) and heart failure. People with rheumatic heart disease may experience shortness of breath, chest pain, and swelling of the joints.

Rheumatic fever most often affects children and people up to age 25 and is more commonly seen in less developed countries where strep throat goes untreated or undertreated. It is rare in the United States.

How is rheumatic heart disease diagnosed?

Diagnosis of rheumatic heart disease begins with a doctor visit. Your doctor will perform a complete physical exam and review of your medical history. Additional testing such as an echocardiogram, electrocardiogram (EKG), chest X-ray, cardiac MRI and blood tests can further determine the presence of rheumatic heart disease.

If you are diagnosed with the condition, your course of treatment will depend on your age and overall health, the severity of the disease and other factors your doctor will discuss with you. For some people, regular check-ups are sufficient for monitoring rheumatic heart disease. Other people may require surgery to repair the heart valves.

To schedule an appointment with a Lankenau Heart Institute specialist, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.