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Endocarditis is a rare but serious condition caused by infection of the inner lining of the heart. With prompt diagnosis and treatment, most people can recover, but the condition can be fatal.

What causes endocarditis?

Endocarditis is usually caused by a bacterial infection. It is also called infective endocarditis or bacterial endocarditis.

Bacteria can reach the heart:

  • through the mouth after a dental procedure or after regular brushing and flossing
  • after surgery or other medical procedures
  • through the skin, digestive system or urinary tract

Bacteria in the bloodstream are more likely to infect a heart that already has some damage. This might have been present at birth (congenital) or caused by disease.

The following also increase your risk of developing endocarditis:

  • surgery or other procedures in a hospital or clinic
  • a problem with the valves in your heart
  • a prosthetic heart valve or a pacemaker
  • problems with your teeth and gums
  • illicit drug or medicine misuse by injection
  • an immune system that doesn't work as well as it should

Endocarditis symptoms

Endocarditis symptoms can develop over a few days or several weeks. Symptoms include:

If you develop any of these symptoms, especially if you are at high risk, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. Although many of the symptoms also have other causes, endocarditis must be diagnosed and treated rapidly. About one third of people who develop endocarditis die within a year. Early diagnosis makes effective treatment much easier.

Endocarditis diagnosis

Your doctor will consider your medical history and physical symptoms, and will examine you. You are likely to have:

  • an electrocardiogram (ECG) to see how well your heart is working
  • multiple blood tests to check on the health of your organs and to look for signs of infection
  • a chest x-ray
  • an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of your heart

You might also have other imaging tests such as a PET scan.

Endocarditis treatment

Endocarditis is a serious and complex condition. If diagnosed, you will need to be treated in hospital, at least initially, and might be in an intensive care unit. You might see a range of doctors, including a cardiologist, a microbiologist, an infectious diseases specialist and a surgeon.

The main treatment for endocarditis is antibiotics, initially through an intravenous (IV) drip. You will have repeated blood tests, x-rays and other imaging tests to monitor your progress. Some people with endocarditis need surgery to remove infected tissue and to rebuild or replace damaged heart valves.

Endocarditis can recur, so your health will be monitored for the following year or so. You’ll learn how to reduce the chance of reinfection and how to recognise it if it occurs.

Endocarditis prevention

Measures to help prevent endocarditis include:

  • observing good hygiene practices in hospitals and health clinics
  • observing good dental hygiene to reduce the risk of bacteria entering through the mouth
  • for people at high risk of endocarditis, having preventative antibiotics before invasive dental procedures

When to seek help

If you are at risk of endocarditis, you should talk to your doctor for more information about prevention.

If you develop any of the above symptoms, especially if you are at high risk, you should see your doctor as soon as possible or go to the nearest emergency department.

More information

The UK National Health Service has more information on endocarditis.

The Heart Foundation has information on heart disease in general.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2018

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