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Rheumatic Heart Disease: Causes and Risk Factors

Medically reviewed by Mae Charisse Antalan, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Nicole Alexine Florendo · Updated Nov 20, 2022

Rheumatic Heart Disease: Causes and Risk Factors

To further understand rheumatic heart disease causes and risk factors, we will need to tackle the causes of rheumatic fever. Rheumatic heart disease is rooted in rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is caused by bacteria called group A Streptococcus. This bacteria mainly causes strep throat, and, in some cases, scarlet fever. So how exactly do you get strep throat?

Rheumatic heart disease causes and risk factors: Strep Throat

Strep throat’s primary symptom would be difficulty in swallowing. This can easily be confused with a sore throat. However, strep throat lasts longer than two days and exhibits as white patches in the mouth. This infection is highly contagious. It directly affects the throat and tonsils, which causes discomfort and pain.

Group A streptococcus tends to thrive in the nose and throat, which is why you can get infected immediately by someone who is carrying this certain bacteria. People may get infected by the droplets released when a carrier coughs, sneezes, or talks.

You can also get infected by touching contaminated surfaces or shared utensils, and transferring the bacteria by touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. Strep throat mostly occurs in children and teens. However, in some cases, adults can contract it too. 

If strep throat is left untreated or undertreated for a certain period, the patient can develop rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever can trigger the body to attack its own tissues, which will then lead to a pervasive inflammation. Rheumatic fever is an autoimmune disease, and can inflame connective tissues in the heart, joints, skin, or brain.

Depending on the severity of the rheumatic fever, it can also cause scarring in the heart, which can lead to a narrowing or leaking of the heart valve. It is important that people are informed about rheumatic heart disease causes and risk factors in order to take the necessary precautions to avoid strep throat and rheumatic fever.

Rheumatic heart disease causes and risk factors: Who are most vulnerable? 

The primary cause and risk of rheumatic heart disease is rheumatic fever, which is mainly caused by strep throat. However, other factors can increase the risk of rheumatic fever, which can lead to rheumatic heart disease.

Rheumatic fever is more common in children than in adults.

People with a weakened immune system are more susceptible to developing rheumatic fever. The most vulnerable are those who have::

  • An autoimmune disorder
  • HIV, AIDS, or cancer
  • Had an organ transplant
  • Taken medicine that suppresses their cells to fight off viruses and bacteria
  • A history of repeated strep throat
  • A family history/genetics makes them more susceptible. There are certain genes that might increase a person’s chances of developing rheumatic fever. 
  • Contracted types of strep bacteria can increase risk for rheumatic fever. Studies show that certain strains are more likely to lead to rheumatic fever than other strains. 

Different seasons can also increase the chances of rheumatic fever. The specific bacteria that causes strep throat and rheumatic fever tends to circulate mostly during winter and early spring. Since this is highly contagious, it can flourish in places with a high volume of people. 

Certain environmental factors are also considered rheumatic heart disease causes and risk factors. Poor sanitation and other conditions can result in accelerated transmission and exposure to the strep bacteria, increasing the likelihood of contracting it.

Rheumatic heart disease causes and risk factors: Complications

If you get rheumatic fever and your symptoms worsen, it can cause long-term medical complications. These include: 

  • The most common heart valve complication of rheumatic heart disease is mitral stenosis and mitral regurgitation.
  • Rheumatic heart disease is a primary complication that can cause heart muscle damage. Having an inflamed heart can weaken the muscles of the heart and reduce its ability to pump blood adequately leading to heart failure.
  • Atrial fibrillation, which is a type of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), can cause blood clots and increase your chances of getting a stroke. 
  • By understanding rheumatic heart disease causes and risk factors, one can make better decisions to protect one’s health. 

    What are the available treatments for rheumatic fever? 

    Since rheumatic fever is one of the main rheumatic heart disease causes and risk factors, various treatment options can help remove the residual group A strep bacteria.

    Rheumatic fever is treated by the following: 

    • Antibiotics are a primary treatment that doctors prescribe for those diagnosed with strep throat. For patients who are in more critical condition, they might need to take antibiotics for a longer period (prophylaxis) to prevent the infection from occurring again. In some rare instances, patients may need to take lifelong antibiotic treatment. 
    • Anti-inflammatory treatment is another measure that doctors prescribe to address the condition. Some pain medications are also anti-inflammatory, such as aspirin and naproxen. In some cases, physicians also recommend using corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. 
    • Anticonvulsant medications are also another treatment for rheumatic fever. Since involuntary actions or movements are also a symptom. The patient might need an anticonvulsant if these symptoms become severe. 
    • As with all other types of sicknesses and diseases, bed rest is highly recommended. Patients who are diagnosed with rheumatic fever should be under strict bed rest until all significant symptoms have passed. Depending on the damage level that has been inflicted on the heart, the patient may need to restrict their activities for prolonged periods. 

    Key Takeaways

    After understanding rheumatic heart disease causes and risk factors, you can now take the necessary precautions from preventing it. To reduce your risk of further complications, and to prevent your strep throat from worsening, contact your doctor. It is important to seek medical attention especially if your symptoms do not improve after 48 to 72 hours.

    Learn more about rheumatic heart disease, here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Mae Charisse Antalan, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Nicole Alexine Florendo · Updated Nov 20, 2022

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