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Rheumatic fever

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Rheumatic fever is an illness that can occur after an infection with group A streptococcus (strep A).
  • Rheumatic fever affects many of your body's tissues, especially those in your heart, joints, brain and skin.
  • Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children living in rural or remote areas are most at risk.
  • Rheumatic fever can be prevented by preventing or treating strep A infections appropriately.

What is rheumatic fever?

Acute rheumatic fever (ARF) is an illness that follows a skin or throat infection caused by group A streptococcus. These bacteria are also called GAS or strep A.

Strep A bacteria can cause infection in your:

Rheumatic fever is an autoimmune disease that affects many parts of your body, especially the heart, joints, brain and skin.

What are the symptoms of rheumatic fever?

Rheumatic fever symptoms usually appear 2 to 6 weeks after a Strep A infection.

Symptoms of rheumatic fever can vary between people. They can range from very mild to severe and may include:

  • fever
  • painful or swollen joints
  • jerky movements of the hands, legs, tongue and face
  • chest pain
  • a rash on your chest, arms or legs (although this is rare)
  • lumps on your elbows, wrists, knees, ankles and spine
  • feeling tired and muscles aches

What causes rheumatic fever?

Rheumatic fever is caused by your body's immune response to the Strep A bacteria.

In some people, the body's immune system gets confused, and they have an autoimmune reaction to the infection.

An autoimmune reaction is when your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. This causes inflammation, which causes the symptoms of rheumatic fever.

Who is at risk of rheumatic fever?

Rheumatic fever is most common in:

  • children aged 5 to 14 years
  • females

Rheumatic fever is more likely to affect:

  • Australia's Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • New Zealand Maori and Pacific Islanders

You're at risk of rheumatic fever if:

  • you've had it before
  • you live in a rural or remote location in northern Australia
  • you live in overcrowded housing

When should l see my doctor?

See your doctor if you are sick and have:

They will see if you need to be treated for Strep A.

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How is rheumatic fever diagnosed?

Your doctor will talk with you about your symptoms and will examine you. They may arrange tests, including:

  • blood tests
  • a throat swab
  • an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound)

These tests can help your doctor find out if you are likely to have rheumatic fever.

There is no single test used to diagnose rheumatic fever.

How is rheumatic fever treated?

Because you may develop rheumatic heart disease you will be admitted to hospital. In hospital, a multidisciplinary team (team of health care professionals) can look after you.

Your treatment will include:

  • monitoring
  • antibiotics for the Strep A infection
  • rest
  • pain management
  • treatment for your other symptoms

You may be given paracetamol to reduce fever and relieve sore joints. Other medicine may be recommended to reduce inflammation of your heart. You may also be given medicine to reduce any jerky movements you're having.

Long-term treatment includes:

  • regular, long-term antibiotics
  • prompt treatment of sore throats and skin sores
  • stopping the development or progression of rheumatic heart disease

How can rheumatic fever be prevented?

You can help prevent rheumatic fever by seeing the doctor or nurse when you're sick.

If you are at a high risk of developing rheumatic fever, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat infections.

If you have a Strep A infection, you should stay away from other people.

What are the complications of rheumatic fever?

The main complication of rheumatic fever is rheumatic heart disease (RHD).

RHD is when your heart valves are damaged by one or more episodes of rheumatic fever.

Treatment with antibiotics can help stop you from developing heart failure or needing heart surgery.

People living with advanced RHD need medical care and follow up for the rest of their lives.

Resources and support

The Heart Foundation has information on acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease, including a video on prevention.

You can call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.

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

Last reviewed: December 2023

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