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HealthInfo Canterbury

Rheumatic fever & rheumatic heart disease

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Rheumatic fever is a serious illness. You can get it when your immune system overreacts to a bacteria (germ) called streptococcus (strep). Instead of fighting the infection, your immune system attacks healthy tissue.

Rheumatic fever often starts with a sore throat caused by the strep bacteria (often called strep throat). Most people with strep throat won't get rheumatic fever. But if they do and it isn't treated, it can cause permanent and serious heart problems.

Rheumatic heart disease is when rheumatic fever inflames your heart and damages your heart valves. Your heart valves prevent blood from flowing backwards. If rheumatic fever damages your heart, the valves can't work properly. If this happens, you may need heart surgery.

Important

See your GP if you have a sore throat and difficulty swallowing and have a higher risk of getting rheumatic fever. See below for the people who have a higher risk of getting rheumatic fever.

People with a higher risk of getting rheumatic fever

Rheumatic fever mainly affects Māori and Pacific families, particularly young people aged 4 to 19 years. You're more at risk if you or other family members have had rheumatic fever before, or you live in overcrowded accommodation.

Overcrowded accommodation is when a home is too small for the number of people living in it. For example, if there are more than two people per bedroom.

Treating rheumatic fever

Sometimes your GP will take a throat swab to check for an infection. If they think you have strep throat, they'll prescribe antibiotics. It's very important to complete the full course of antibiotics as directed by your GP.

Your GP will assess any other symptoms that you have. If they think you have rheumatic fever, they'll refer you to the hospital for further assessment and treatment.

Although most people fully recover from rheumatic fever, it can come back. To help stop this happening, your GP may prescribe long-term antibiotics, which you may need to take for many years.

Preventing strep throat and rheumatic fever

The following series of videos from the Ministry of Health give tips to prevent rheumatic fever by keeping your home warm and dry, and preventing the spread of germs. There are nine short videos and they'll automatically play in order.

There are also English and Te Reo, English and Tongan, and English and Samoan versions of the videos.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by clinical director, Infectious Diseases, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed January 2019.

Sources

See also:

Financial support for health costs

Keeping your home warm and dry

Page reference: 74248

Review key: HIRHF-74248