Rheumatic fever is a disease that causes inflammation in several organ systems of the body. It often forms after a particular type of infection, such as strep throat or scarlet fever. Rheumatic fever is an inflammatory reaction to these types of illness and can affect the heart, joints, skin and brain. Two types of rheumatic fever are chronic rheumatic fever (which is long-term) and acute rheumatic fever (which is short-term).
Who is Affected by Rheumatic Fever?
Research shows that in the United States, rheumatic fever doesn’t typically affect children under the age of 3 or adults over the age of 40. According to the National Institutes of Health, this disease most commonly develops in children between the ages of 6 and 15 years.
The disease is less common in developing countries, possibly because antibiotics are more widely used to treat streptococcal illnesses–like strep throat and scarlet fever–in their early stages. Researchers have found that both genetic history and living in an overpopulated area increase your risk of contracting rheumatic fever.
Children with this disease who are not treated are more likely to suffer from another type of streptococcal infection. Rheumatic fever symptoms can vary depending on the:
- Parts of the body that become inflamed
- Severity of the disease
- Type of rheumatic fever (acute or chronic).
Rheumatic Fever Symptoms
Symptoms of rheumatic fever tend to become evident several weeks after initial throat problems have disappeared. Some of the most common rheumatic fever symptoms are:
- Chest pain
- Heart problems
- Joint pain
- Skin rash.
A child who has rheumatic fever may experience one or several of these symptoms. You’ll want to see your doctor if these symptoms are present and your child is at risk for rheumatic fever. The doctor will be able to give you a diagnosis and provide treatment if needed.
Complications of Rheumatic Fever
If rheumatic fever goes untreated, there are several complications that may occur, such as rheumatic heart disease. Rheumatic heart disease typically causes a narrowing of the mitral valve. In order to test for this complication of rheumatic fever, your pediatrician may require a throat culture to confirm, followed by a physical examination.
Without proper treatment, rheumatic heart disease may cause valve stenosis (decreased blood flow) or valve regurgitation (blood flow in the wrong direction).
How is Rheumatic Fever Diagnosed?
Different forms of rheumatic fever exist, so no single test can properly diagnose the disease. However, doctors can conduct an initial, general test to help determine whether or not an individual has rheumatic fever. This test includes checking for heart complications, skin problems and swelling in the joints. Other, more detailed tests may include a:
- Blood test
- Complete blood count
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR).
Prevention and Treatment for Rheumatic Fever
The most effective way to help prevent rheumatic fever is to treat streptococcal throat infections right away. Children who develop rheumatic fever should take penicillin orally every day, or receive injections into the muscles monthly to help prevent future streptococcal infections.
If an individual has acute rheumatic fever, antibiotics may be used as treatment, as well as acetaminophen (aspirin should not be administered to children) to help reduce joint inflammation. Overall, the three main goals of rheumatic fever treatments are to:
- Eliminate any streptococcal infections
- Limit physical activity that may cause stress or aggravate inflamed parts of the body
- Reduce inflammation.
As with any disease, you should speak with your pediatrician if you notice rheumatic fever symptoms in your child. Your doctor can diagnose the disease and help put your child on a treatment plan.
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UCSF Children’s Hospital Staff. (2010). Rheumatic heart disease. Retrieved April 22, 2010, from the UCSF Children’s Hospital Web site: http://www.ucsfchildrenshospital.org/conditions/rheumatic_heart_disease/index.html.