Rheumatic fever (RF) is a complication resulting from untreated strep throat. Caused by group A streptococcal infection, rheumatic fever was once the number one cause of valve disease. This was the case before antibiotics were widely used in strep throat treatment.
In RF, swelling throughout the body can lead to damaged tissues. One such tissue, the valves of the heart, are scarred in more than half of RF cases. Scarred valves may become narrower or have difficulty opening and closing properly. This causes the heart to work harder to deliver blood to the body. When valve damage is the result of RF, it is called rheumatic heart disease. This condition can eventually lead to heart failure, a potentially fatal event.
The condition is caused when the body releases immune cells to fight the strep infection. These antibiotics sometimes attack the tissues of the heart and joints. This is what causes scarring on heart valves and joint damage.
While only 0.3% of people who have strep throat eventually develop RF, it is a concern for children between the ages of 5 and 15 years. This is the age a person is most likely to develop RF. Adults with weakened immune systems are also susceptible.
If heart valves are damaged due to RF doctors may recommend surgery to repair or replace the scarred valve.
Depending on the specifics of each case, surgery may be either open heart or minimally invasive. In an open-heart procedure the bones of the chest are displaced so that surgeons may access the heart. In minimally invasive operations, robots may be used to replace valves through just a few small incisions. Treatment depends on factors like age, health, the technology available, and the condition of the affected valve.
Risks inherent in valve replacement surgeries include bleeding, heart attack, infection, and more.
This highlights the importance of seeing a doctor if you or your child to develop a sore throat that lasts more than three days. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can help patients avoid RF following a strep throat infection.
The above video, from Osmosis, goes into detail about RF, including the causes, symptoms, and diagnostic procedure.