Rheumatic heart disease is heart valve damage due to rheumatic fever. The fever is your body’s inflammatory response to a bacterial infection. Children in poor countries without access to antibiotics are at the highest risk. The condition can lead to serious health problems, including heart failure. Medication and surgery are the main treatments.
Rheumatic heart disease is heart valve damage resulting from rheumatic fever. Bacterial infections called group A streptococcal (GAS) infections can cause rheumatic fever. An infection, such as strep throat or scarlet fever, triggers your body’s immune response. It causes inflammation throughout the body, including in the heart. If untreated, the inflammation can lead to permanent heart valve damage and serious health problems.
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Children and teenagers with untreated strep infections are the most likely to get rheumatic fever. Signs of heart damage can develop years after the infection and fever are gone.
Rheumatic heart disease is rare in the U.S. It’s more common in low-income or developing parts of the world. Antibiotics for bacterial infections may not be available in these areas. About 300,000 people worldwide die of rheumatic heart disease each year.
People are at a higher risk for this disease if they:
Symptoms of rheumatic heart disease may not appear until years after a strep infection or rheumatic fever. People with heart damage may experience:
Heart valve inflammation from rheumatic fever causes rheumatic heart disease. The damage may occur right away. Or it can develop over time from repeated strep infections. Continuing inflammation leads to heart valve scarring and narrowing.
The disease tends to affect the mitral and aortic heart valves. These valves control blood flow. If the valves don’t work, blood leaks backward into the heart instead of flowing out of the heart.
Your healthcare provider:
Your provider may use the following tests to diagnose heart valve disease:
There’s no cure for rheumatic heart disease. Treatment can help you manage symptoms and may delay disease progress. Treatments include:
During heart valve repair surgery (also called balloon valvuloplasty), your surgeon:
If it’s not possible to perform a repair, you may need valve replacement surgery. Your surgeon replaces the damaged valve with an artificial valve or a tissue valve. In some cases, your surgeon may perform a Ross procedure. The procedure swaps one of your healthy valves for the damaged valve.
You can prevent rheumatic heart disease by taking antibiotics at the first signs of a streptococcal infection. See your healthcare provider if you or your child has:
People with well-managed rheumatic heart disease can enjoy a high quality of life. The right treatments may delay or prevent heart failure. But the disease is permanent and requires long-term care.
Rheumatic heart disease can lead to:
Any of these conditions can increase your risk of stroke or blood clots.
Rheumatic heart disease is especially dangerous for pregnant people. Pregnancy increases the amount of blood in your body. Your heart has to work harder to pump the extra blood. A person with damaged heart valves can have serious health issues during pregnancy. The fetus's health is also at risk.
Contact your healthcare provider if you experience new or worsened symptoms, including:
Rheumatic heart disease is the result of inflammation in the heart. The inflammation is your body’s immune response to an untreated bacterial infection. Over time, it damages your heart valves and disrupts blood flow. Rheumatic heart disease can lead to heart failure. People with the condition need careful monitoring and treatment.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/22/2021.
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