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Rheumatic heart disease

4-minute read

Rheumatic heart disease is a condition that develops when the body’s heart valves are damaged by acute rheumatic fever (also called rheumatic fever). Rheumatic heart disease is a serious, disabling, sometimes fatal condition. But it is also entirely preventable.

What is rheumatic heart disease?

Rheumatic heart disease refers to the lasting damage to the heart valves that occurs when rheumatic fever inflames the heart. This inflammation can stretch or scar the heart valves. If the heart valves stay this way, the blood may face problems as it flows through the heart.

Who is at risk of rheumatic heart disease?

You can develop rheumatic heart disease if you have had rheumatic fever.

People are at greater risk of developing rheumatic fever if they have poor living conditions, including living in overcrowded housing, and they have limited access to medical care.

Australia has some of the world's highest recorded rates of rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease. It mainly affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in remote areas, especially children, adolescents and young adults.

Because rheumatic heart disease is more common in some families, researchers are looking at what role genes might play.

Symptoms of rheumatic heart disease

People with rheumatic heart disease may not notice symptoms for many years. The symptoms will depend on the type of heart damage, and how serious it is.

People with mild rheumatic heart disease may have a heartbeat that sounds abnormal (known as a heart murmur) which doctors can hear using a stethoscope.

Symptoms of moderate to severe rheumatic heart disease include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath when exercising or lying down
  • weakness and tiredness
  • palpitations
  • swollen legs and face

Over time, severe rheumatic heart disease can cause serious complications such as:

Diagnosis of rheumatic heart disease

If your doctor suspects you might have rheumatic heart disease, you will probably need to see a specialist who can diagnose it.

In most cases, doctors use an ultrasound of the heart, known as echocardiography, to diagnose rheumatic heart disease.

X-rays and echocardiograms (ECGs) can also help diagnose heart problems.

Treatment of rheumatic heart disease

The treatment of rheumatic heart disease is designed to do 2 things: manage problems caused by any heart damage you have now, and prevent future damage.

To manage any heart problems you have now, doctors may give you medicine:

  • to keep your heart beating at a more normal rate and rhythm (for arrhythmia)
  • to prevent heart failure by reducing the amount of fluid in your body
  • to prevent blood clots from forming in the heart

Some people with rheumatic heart disease may need surgery to repair or replace their heart valves.

Follow-up care for rheumatic heart disease

If you have rheumatic heart disease, you will need regular check-ups with clinic staff, specialists and dentists.

Rheumatic heart disease can get worse if you have rheumatic fever again. To prevent this, you will need to go to a clinic every 3-4 weeks for penicillin injections.

These long-acting antibiotic injections are very important. Never miss or stop them without talking to a doctor. 

You must also take very good care of your teeth. Regular brushing and dental checks reduce the risk of infections of the heart. 

Preventing rheumatic heart disease

Rheumatic heart disease is entirely preventable.

In many cases, people who have rheumatic fever can still avoid rheumatic heart disease by having regular penicillin injections. 

Preventing rheumatic fever in the first instance is also important. This means getting an early diagnosis and treatment of strep throat infections that cause the fever.

The risk of getting a strep infection can be reduced by improving:

  • housing and living conditions
  • access to fresh food and a healthy diet
  • access to fresh water
  • availability of education about hygiene and hand-washing

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