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What is Rheumatic Fever?

Fever, joint inflammation, and fatigue are common signs of rheumatic fever.
A doctor may discover heart valve inflammation when examining a patient with rheumatic fever.
Proper antibiotic treatment can prevent illnesses related to strep throat, such as rheumatic fever.
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  • Written By: Diana Bocco
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2014
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Rheumatic fever is a serious immune disease that affects different areas of the body, including the joints, heart, skin, nervous system, and brain. Rheumatic fever may develop after a serious infection with streptococcus bacteria, especially strep throat. Family history of the disease also plays an important part in who gets rheumatic fever and who doesn't. While rheumatic fever is more frequent in children under 15 years old, it can occur at any age if a serious case of strep throat is left untreated treated inadequately for more than 20 days.

Rheumatic fever was common before antibiotics, and it still occurs frequently in Third World countries and poor areas with difficult access to medical care. In the US and most parts of Europe, however, it's becoming rare. Rheumatic fever develops in about three percent of people who have suffered from strep throat.

Some of the most common signs of rheumatic fever include a combination of joint inflammation, fever, fatigue and shortness of breath or chest pain, especially if these symptoms come after a strep throat condition. A pinkish rash that develops on arms and legs without any apparent reason may also be a sign of rheumatic fever. Some people also develop hard lumps under the skin. Upon a close physical exam, doctors may be able to detect abnormal heart murmurs or inflammation of the heart valves.

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While there is no cure for rheumatic fever, the disease can be effectively treated with a dual approach, which includes antibiotics, such as penicillin, to cure any remainders of the streptococcal infection, and no steroidal anti-inflammatory medication to reduce inflammation and ease the bothersome symptoms. Bed rest is also a common prescription for patients. Patients who have been diagnosed with rheumatic fever usually must take antibiotics throughout life to prevent recurrences.

If left untreated, rheumatic fever can result in serious complications, including scarring of the heart's valves and even congestive heart failure. Rheumatic fever has also been known to affect the brain and cause loss of coordination. Since no definite treatments exist for rheumatic fever, prevention is essential. Treating throat infections with antibiotics is the easiest way to avoid later complications.

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