Rheumatic heart disease is a serious complication of Group A Streptococcus infection. It can cause damage to the valves in your heart and may cause severe heart problems in the future.

Rheumatic heart disease is heart damage caused by rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is a complication of group A Streptococcus bacterial infections.These infections cause:

  • strep throat
  • scarlet fever
  • impetigo

Rheumatic fever and heart disease are most common in developing countries with poor access to antibiotics and healthcare. In the United States, rheumatic fever is estimated to affect about 1 out of 10,000 people annually. About 60% of those receiving a rheumatic fever diagnosis globally each year develop rheumatic heart disease.

Read on to learn more about rheumatic heart disease, including its symptoms, treatments, and outlook.

People with rheumatic heart disease typically develop other symptoms of group A Streptococcus infection before developing heart problems.

Group A Streptococcus bacteria cause strep throat, which leads to symptoms like:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • red and swollen tonsils
  • swollen lymph nodes in your neck
  • tiny red spots on the roof of your mouth
  • white patches in your throat

Strep throat usually lasts longer than a common sore throat from a viral infection.

Some people with strep throat develop scarlet fever, which can cause a rash that usually starts on your neck, chest, or face and spreads to your trunk and limbs.

Group A Streptococcus also causes an infectious skin condition called impetigo. Impetigo can cause reddish sores often around the nose and mouth that rupture and ooze.

About 3% of people with untreated acute group A Streptococcus infection develop rheumatic fever. Symptoms include:

  • painful joints, especially your:
    • knees
    • ankles
    • elbows
    • wrists
  • fatigue
  • heart murmur
  • fever
  • jerky and uncontrollable body movements (chorea)
  • infrequently:
    • painless nodules under the skin near joints
    • a rash with a pink ring and a clear center

Symptoms of rheumatic heart disease depend on how much your heart is damaged but may include:

Rheumatic heart disease is a complication of either a single case or repeated cases of rheumatic fever. About 50­–70% of people who develop acute rheumatic fever develop carditis during initial episodes (initial presentation of the condition).

Rheumatic fever is caused by an improper immune response to group A Streptococcus bacteria where your immune system attacks and damages healthy tissue. It typically develops 2–3 weeks after infection.

People with rheumatic heart disease develop inflammation and scarring in their heart valves, especially on the left side of their heart.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), rheumatic heart disease mostly affects children and adolescents in low or middle income countries, especially where there’s widespread poverty and limited healthcare.

Females are more likely than males to progress from rheumatic fever to rheumatic heart disease.

In the United States, acute rheumatic fever hospitalization is most common in boys ages 6–11 of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.

Rheumatic heart disease can cause permanent damage to the valves in your heart. Damage to these valves may cause heart failure or other serious heart problems. More than 275,000 deaths per year worldwide are attributed to rheumatic heart disease.

Your doctor may suspect rheumatic heart disease if your symptoms develop shortly after a strep throat infection. They’ll start the diagnostic process by:

  • considering your personal and family medical history
  • asking you about your symptoms
  • performing a physical exam where they listen to your heart

If they suspect a problem with the valves in your heart, you might receive other tests, such as:

It’s important to contact a doctor if you or your child develop potential signs of strep throat, such as:

  • a sore throat that lasts more than 48 hours
  • swollen neck lymph nodes
  • a rash

It’s important to see a doctor right away if you suspect you or your child might have rheumatic fever or heart disease.

If you or your child receive a rheumatic heart disease diagnosis, your doctor will schedule continual routine follow-ups to examine and monitor your heart function. It’s important that you attend your scheduled appointments.

Currently, there’s no cure for rheumatic heart disease and damage to your heart valves is not reversible. People with severe heart damage often need surgery to repair their valves.

Your doctor may determine that medication therapy is needed to help reduce symptoms of heart failure or arrhythmia. They’ll recommend the most appropriate medication(s). They may also prescribe medications to help reduce the risk of blood clots.

If you have questions about your specific treatment plan, you can talk with your doctor and other members of your healthcare team.

Taking steps to help reduce your chances of developing strep throat and receiving proper treatment with antibiotics if you do develop it can help prevent rheumatic heart disease.

The following are several recommended preventive measures:

  • avoiding sharing utensils or drinks with people who are sick
  • washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • avoiding close contact with people who have strep throat

Some people with rheumatic heart disease live without experiencing any long-term health problems.

For those who do experience complications, long-term monitoring is required to continually examine your heart function. Symptoms of valve damage caused by rheumatic heart disease might not appear for years.

In a 2021 study using data covering 70% of the population of Australia, researchers found that 23.3% of people with rheumatic heart disease died or had cardiovascular complications within 8 years.

They found that 0.4% of people with rheumatic heart disease died within 6 months compared to 0% of people in the control group. They also found that 2.1% of people with rheumatic heart disease died within 5 years compared to 0.8% in the control group.

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about rheumatic heart disease.

What age does rheumatic heart disease occur?

Rheumatic heart disease occurs as a complication of rheumatic fever, which most commonly develops in school-aged children ages 5–15.

How common is rheumatic heart disease?

In the United States, rheumatic fever is thought to affect about 1 out of 10,000 people per year. About 60% of the those receiving a rheumatic fever diagnosis worldwide each year develop rheumatoid heart disease.

One of the highest incidence rates of rheumatic fever diagnoses occurs in Indigenous people of Australia, where rheumatic fever is estimated to affect 150–380 per 100,000 children ages 5–14. Researchers note that environmental and socioeconomic situations are likely contributing factors to their increased risk of diagnosis.

Heart damage caused by rheumatic heart disease cannot be reversed, but medication, surgery, or a combination of the two can help reduce symptoms. Taking steps to prevent strep throat infection is considered the best way to prevent rheumatic heart disease.