What causes rheumatic fever?
Rheumatic fever is not an infection itself, but rather the result of an untreated strep infection. When your body senses the strep infection, it sends antibodies to fight it. Sometimes, these antibodies attack the tissues of your joints or heart instead. If the antibodies attack your heart, they can cause your heart valves to swell, which can lead to scarring of the valve "doors" (called leaflets or cusps).
Who is at risk for rheumatic fever?
Fewer than 0.3% of people who have strep throat also get rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is most common among children aged 5 to 15, but adults may have the condition as well. Doctors think that a weakened immune system may make some people more likely to get rheumatic fever. And, although antibiotic medicines have reduced the number of cases of rheumatic fever in developed countries, there are still thousands of reported cases.
What are the symptoms of rheumatic fever and how is it diagnosed?
Symptoms of rheumatic fever usually begin 1 to 6 weeks after you have had a strep infection. They are
Joint pain or swelling in your wrists, elbows, knees, or ankles
Small bumps under the skin over your elbows or knees (called nodules)
A raised, red rash on your chest, back, or stomach
Stomach pain or feeling less hungry
Weakness, shortness of breath, or feeling very tired
Your doctor will begin by doing a throat culture to find out if you have a strep infection.
Then, your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your heart. He or she will also look for nodules on your joints. Sometimes, blood tests, chest x-rays, or an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) may be needed for a more definite diagnosis.
How is rheumatic fever treated?
Rheumatic fever must be treated right away. If you have a sore throat that lasts longer than 3 days, or if you have a fever and headache along with your sore throat, you should see your doctor for a throat culture. Even if you do not have a sore throat but have a fever and a skin rash, this could also mean a strep infection, and you should get tested. Remember rheumatic fever can result from an untreated strep infection, so it is very important to treat the infection before it leads to a worse condition.