What is rheumatic fever?

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Rheumatic fever in children: Overview

Rheumatic fever is a disease that can harm the heart, joints, skin, and brain. It can occur after a child has had strep throat or scarlet fever that has not been treated. It does not spread to others.

The illness may make your child's joints ache and swell. Your child may have belly pain and a rash or bumps on the skin. Some children develop heart valve problems.

Your child may need to take medicine to reduce pain and swelling. If the heart valves are damaged, your child may need more treatment.

Your doctor will treat the strep throat with antibiotics. And your child will likely need to take antibiotics to keep rheumatic fever from coming back.

Rheumatic fever

Rheumatic fever results from an infection caused by certain strains of streptococcal bacteria and may be triggered by a strep infection (most often strep throat) that has not been treated. Proper treatment of strep infection can prevent rheumatic fever.

Rheumatic fever affects the joints and heart, causing symptoms similar to arthritis as well as heart problems (rheumatic heart disease). Rheumatic fever may also affect the skin, brain, and other organs and tissues. Most of the damage caused by rheumatic fever is temporary. But if any heart damage occurs, it is usually permanent.

How can you care for your child who has rheumatic fever?

  • Make sure your child gets enough rest.
  • Have your child drink plenty of fluids. If your child has kidney, heart, or liver disease and has to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids your child drinks.
  • Have your child take medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think your child is having a problem with a medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
  • If the doctor prescribed antibiotics for your child, give them as directed. Do not stop using them just because your child feels better. Your child needs to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Your doctor may prescribe medicine to reduce swelling and inflammation. Your doctor may also recommend that your child take over-the-counter medicines. These include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for fever. Do not use ibuprofen if your child is less than 6 months old unless the doctor gave you instructions to use it. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.
  • After getting better, your child may need to take antibiotics before some procedures. These include dental work and surgery. Talk to your child's doctor before your child has any procedures or surgery.

How does rheumatic fever damage the heart?

Rheumatic fever is a bacterial infection that can cause problems with the heart's aortic and mitral valves.

Rheumatic fever is caused by certain strains of streptococcal bacteria. A strep throat infection that isn't properly treated can trigger rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever can damage heart muscle and heart valves. Not all people who have rheumatic fever develop rheumatic heart disease.

This infection causes swelling and muscle damage to the heart. It can also damage the heart valves in a way that keeps the blood from moving through the heart normally. The infection can cause heart valve leaflets to stick together, which narrows the valve opening. Also, the infection can scar the valves. This keeps the valves from closing tightly, so blood leaks backward in the heart.

If the aortic valve is narrowed, this problem is called aortic valve stenosis.

If the mitral valve is narrowed, this problem is called mitral valve stenosis.

If the valve does not close tightly and blood leaks backward, the problem is called aortic valve regurgitation or mitral valve regurgitation.

Rheumatic fever in children: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has severe trouble breathing.
  • Your child has a new sore throat.
  • Your child has new or worse joint problems.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child does not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.