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Rheumatic Heart Disease in Children

What is rheumatic heart disease in children?

Rheumatic heart disease is a condition that causes permanent damage to the heart valves. It can develop after a child has rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is the body's response to a strep infection of the throat or tonsils, known as "strep throat." Rheumatic fever may also follow scarlet fever. This is a strep infection of the throat along with a red, rough-feeling skin rash. Rheumatic fever may affect the joints, skin, tissue under the skin, brain, and heart. If it affects the heart, it is called rheumatic heart disease.

What causes rheumatic heart disease in a child?

Rheumatic heart disease is caused by rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is a complication of an untreated or under-treated strep infection.

Which children are at risk for rheumatic heart disease?

Rheumatic heart disease is uncommon in the U.S. because rheumatic fever is also not common. Rheumatic fever occurs more often in children between ages 5 and 15. This is more of a risk if they have had frequent cases of strep throat. Poor access to medical care is a risk factor for rheumatic heart disease as strep infections are more likely to be missed and go untreated.

What are the symptoms of rheumatic heart disease in a child?

Your child may have signs and symptoms due to the heart not working as well, such as:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Chest pain

  • Swelling (edema) of the feet and ankles

  • Heart murmur

Your child may also have other signs and symptoms of rheumatic fever. These include:

  • Joint pain and swelling 

  • Rash

  • Small, hard, round bumps under the skin (nodules)

  • Irregular or jerky movements

  • Belly (abdominal) pain

  • Bloody nose

  • Fever

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

  • Fatigue

The symptoms of rheumatic heart disease can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is rheumatic heart disease diagnosed in a child?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history, including having rheumatic fever or strep infections. They will give your child a physical exam. Your child may also have tests, such as:

  • Throat culture. This is a test to see if your child has strep throat or signs of a recent strep infection.

  • Echocardiography. This is an imaging test that uses sound waves (ultrasound) to make detailed pictures of the heart.

  • Electrocardiography. This is a test to measure the electrical activity of the heart.

  • Blood tests. For these, a small amount of blood is taken with a needle from a vein in an arm or hand. 

How is rheumatic heart disease treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how bad the condition is. Your child's healthcare provider will likely refer you to a pediatric cardiologist. This is a healthcare provider with special training to treat heart problems in children. Your child may also see other specialists, depending on their symptoms.

Children with rheumatic heart disease will need to rest until their symptoms get better.

Your child’s healthcare provider may prescribe 1 or more of these medicines:

  • Antibiotics to treat the acute strep infection

  • Long-term antibiotics to prevent recurrent strep infection

  • Steroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ease inflammation in the heart and in other parts of the body

  • Water pills (diuretics) if heart failure develops

  • Anti-inflammatory medicine for the management of fever and arthritis symptoms

Your child may also need other medicines. Some children need surgery to fix or replace damaged heart valves.

What are possible complications of rheumatic heart disease in a child?

Possible complications of rheumatic heart disease include:

  • Permanent heart damage

  • Acute or chronic heart valve disease

  • Heart failure

  • Infection in the heart (endocarditis)

What can I do to prevent rheumatic heart disease in my child?

You can help prevent rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease by knowing what strep throat looks like and getting treatment for it. Your child’s healthcare provider can do a throat culture or rapid antigen detection test (RADT) to see if your child has strep throat.

Children with damaged heart valves from rheumatic heart disease need to keep their teeth and gums clean. They should also have regular dental exams with preventive antibiotics. These steps can help prevent infections of the damaged heart valves.

How can I help my child live with rheumatic heart disease?

Your child will need to have regular exams to check on their heart. They may also have repeat diagnostic tests of the heart.

If your child has had rheumatic fever, the healthcare provider may prescribe periodic antibiotics to take for several years or up to a certain age. The antibiotics keep rheumatic fever from coming back. They also lower the risk for heart damage. It's important that your child continue to take antibiotics as prescribed.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call your child's healthcare provider if your child has any of these:

  • Fever

  • Trouble breathing

  • Chest pain

  • Swelling (edema) of the feet or ankles

  • Another sore throat

Key points about rheumatic heart disease in children

  • Rheumatic heart disease is long-term damage to heart valves that is a complication of rheumatic fever.

  • Rheumatic fever stems from untreated strep infections.

  • You can prevent rheumatic heart disease by knowing what strep throat looks like and getting treatment for it.

  • Rheumatic heart disease is treated with rest and medicine. If valve damage occurs, your child may need surgery.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or procedure for your child make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure

  • The reason your child is having the test or procedure

  • What results to expect and what they mean

  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure

  • When and where your child is to have the test or procedure

  • Who will do the procedure and what that person’s qualifications are

  • What would happen if your child did not have the test or procedure

  • Any alternative tests or procedures to think about

  • When and how will you get the results

  • Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or your child has problems

  • How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure

Online Medical Reviewer: Heather M Trevino BSN RNC
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2024
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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