Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How to Prevent Heart Infections

Preventing Rheumatic Fever
Publications International, Ltd. Children have the greatest chance of developing rheumatic fever

Rheumatic fever is a rare inflammation of the heart and other body parts (joints, nervous system, and skin) that usually results from a bout with strep throat. People who develop rheumatic fever tend to have an abnormal immune response to some strains of the Streptococcus bacterium. As their bodies fight this bacterial infection, inflammation occurs in their joints and the tissues of the heart and its internal valves.

Initial symptoms of rheumatic fever are those of strep throat -- sore throat, inflamed tonsils, fever, headache, and aching muscles. Swollen and painful joints (mostly in the knees, elbows, ankles, and wrists) later develop with abdominal pain, skin rash, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Most signs of rheumatic fever appear about one week to six weeks after a case of strep throat.

Complications of rheumatic fever include heart valve damage; heart failure; endocarditis; erratic heartbeats (arrhythmias); and a rare condition called Sydenham's chorea that causes moodiness, weakened muscles, and jerky movements of the face, feet, and hands. Rheumatic fever is treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs. People typically recover fully but might need to take low-dose antibiotics for a number of years to prevent any recurrences and further damage to the heart.

The Culprit

Rheumatic fever is a complication of infection with group A Streptococcus bacteria.

Who's at Risk?


Children between the ages of 6 and 15 (more often girls) are at the highest risk of developing rheumatic fever. Those who have weakened immune systems are also more susceptible.

Defensive Measures

Some cases of rheumatic fever can occur following a "silent" strep throat infection that has no symptoms. The best defense against rheumatic fever is to treat a documented strep throat infection with antibiotics as soon as symptoms appear. If sore throat with a fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit lasts more than 24 hours, contact a physician. Remember, rheumatic fever can lead to heart failure, valve damage or endocarditis, and thus, could be deadly. Look for the symptoms of these heart infections and act to ward off disaster.

Now that you're armed with information about rheumatic fever and endocarditis, you can take measures to prevent getting either infection.


Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers and Southern Living magazines. Formerly assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine, Mann has a professional passion for learning and writing about health issues.


Dr. Larry Lutwick is a Professor of Medicine at the State University of New York - Downstate Medical School in Brooklyn, New York, and Director of Infectious Diseases, Veterans Affairs New York Harbor Health Care System, Brooklyn Campus. He is also Bacterial Diseases Moderator for the real time online infectious diseases surveillance system, Program for Monitoring  Emerging Diseases (ProMED-mail). He has authored more than 100 medical articles and 15 book chapters. He has edited two books on infectious diseases.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.