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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Rheumatic fever & rheumatic heart disease

Rūmātiki me mate manawa rūmātiki

This page has links to information in other languages.


Rheumatic fever is a serious illness. You can get it when your immune system overreacts to a germ (bacteria) called streptococcus or 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 will not 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 stop your blood from flowing backwards. If rheumatic fever damages your heart, the valves cannot work properly. If this happens, you may need heart surgery.


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 Pasifika 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 will prescribe antibiotics. It's very important to complete the full course of antibiotics exactly the way your GP directs.

Your GP will assess any other symptoms that you have. If they think you have rheumatic fever, they will 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 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 will automatically play in order.

There are also English and te reo, English and Tongan, and English and Samoan versions of the videos.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2022.


See also:

Financial support for health costs

Keeping your home warm and dry

Page reference: 74248

Review key: HIRHF-74248