Rheumatic Heart Disease

What is Rheumatic Heart Disease?

Rheumatic heart disease is damage to the heart and its valves caused by rheumatic fever – an inflammatory disease that can develop as a complication of inadequately treated strep throat or scarlet fever. This damage may affect the aortic valve, the mitral valve or both – causing the valves to leak or become narrowed over time.

Rheumatic fever can also affect the heart muscle, a condition known as myocarditis, or the outer covering (membrane) of the heart, a condition known as pericarditis.

Symptoms of rheumatic heart disease can appear 10 to 20 years after the original illness. Underlying rheumatic heart disease can be a cause of cardiac complications during pregnancy.

Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care for patients in the diagnosis, management and treatment of rheumatic heart disease. You will appreciate timely appointments and respectful attention to your concerns, all in a positive and friendly atmosphere. Here, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health.


Rheumatic Heart Disease Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of rheumatic fever, which can lead to rheumatic heart disease, include:

  • Swelling, redness and pain in the joints      
  • An inflammation of the heart muscle and tissue, causing a rapid heart rate, fatigue, shortness of breath and exercise intolerance    
  • Fever    
  • Involuntary movements of the extremities    
  • A rash that is often blotchy and not itchy

Symptoms of rheumatic heart disease depend on the extent and location of heart damage. Symptoms of heart valve problems, which can result from rheumatic heart disease, include:

  • Chest pain    
  • Excessive fatigue    
  • Heart palpitations    
  • Shortness of breath    
  • Swollen ankles, wrists or stomach    
  • Thumping/pounding sensation in the chest

Rheumatic Heart Disease Diagnosis

The physician will perform a physical examination, and listen to heart sounds (heart auscultations). Further diagnostic procedures and technologies for rheumatic heart disease can include:

Chest X-ray: A common imaging test of the heart and aorta.

Echocardiogram: This ultrasound exam uses soundwaves to take moving pictures of the heart’s chambers and valves.

Electrocardiogram (EKG): This test measures the electrical activity of the heart and can help determine if parts of the heart are enlarged or overworked. The heart’s electrical currents are detected by 12 to 15 electrodes that are attached to the arms, legs and chest via sticky tape.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A large magnet, radio waves and a computer are used to produce pictures of the heart and blood vessels.

Rheumatic Heart Disease Causes

Rheumatic fever occurs as a result of a rare strain of strep bacterial infection that isn’t treated, or is inadequately treated with antibiotics.

Risk Factors

Researchers believe there is a genetic factor involved in rheumatic fever and the subsequent development of rheumatic heart disease, because members of some families are much more likely to develop it.


To prevent rheumatic heart disease, all strep infections – and rheumatic fever, if it develops – require treatment with antibiotics. If diagnosed with rheumatic fever, you might need follow-up care with a cardiologist to check for heart inflammation or damage.

Rheumatic Heart Disease Prognosis

The outlook for people with rheumatic heart disease depends on the type and extent of damage to the heart valves, muscle or outer membrane.

Treatment and Recovery

Treatment for rheumatic heart disease varies based on how much damage the heart has sustained. In severe cases, treatment may include surgery to replace or repair a badly damaged valve.

If heart inflammation is diagnosed along with, or right after, rheumatic fever, your physician will prescribe antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications to clear the infection and minimize heart damage. People who have had rheumatic fever are sometimes prescribed daily or monthly antibiotic treatments to prevent future attacks of rheumatic fever and lower the risk of further heart damage. 


Rheumatic heart disease can cause complications including:

Bacterial endocarditis: This infection of the inner lining of the heart can occur when rheumatic fever has damaged heart valves.

Pregnancy and delivery complications: Women with rheumatic heart disease should consult with a physician about possible risks before getting pregnant.

Ruptured heart valve: This medical emergency must be treated with surgery to replace the heart valve.

Related Conditions

Heart disease
Ischemic heart disease

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