Rheumatic heart disease is a complication of rheumatic fever, which in turn results from an untreated strep throat. Rheumatic fever can damage the heart valves, causing them to fail to close properly or not open enough. When a valve fails to close properly, it allows blood to leak backwards. When a valve does not open enough, the heart must pump harder to force blood through the narrowed opening. When damage to the heart is permanent, the condition is called rheumatic heart disease.
Rheumatic fever is an inflammatory disease that can affect many of the body's connective tissues – especially those of the heart, joints, brain or skin.
Anyone can get acute rheumatic fever, but it usually occurs in children aged 5 to 15. The rheumatic heart disease that results can last for life.
Symptoms vary greatly. Often the damage to heart valves isn't immediately noticeable. Eventually, damaged heart valves can cause serious, even disabling, problems. These problems depend on how bad the damage is and which heart valve is affected.
The best defense against rheumatic heart disease is to prevent rheumatic fever. This can usually be accomplished by prompt and adequate treatment of strep throat. If rheumatic fever develops, continuous antibiotic treatment may be needed to prevent further attacks.
The most advanced condition is congestive heart failure. This is a heart disease in which the heart enlarges and can not pump out all of its blood.
People who have already had rheumatic fever are more susceptible to attacks and heart damage. For this reason they are given continuous monthly or daily antibiotic treatment, perhaps for life. If their heart has been damaged by rheumatic fever, they are also given a different antibiotic when they undergo dental or surgical procedures. This helps prevent bacterial endocarditis, a dangerous infection of the heart's lining or valves.
As well as possible drug therapy, treatment may involve avoidance of overexertion.
Surgery to replace the damaged valve may be necessary in some cases.
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