Although rheumatic fever is uncommon in the United States, there are still 470,000 new cases yearly. Hence, you must be familiar with rheumatic fever and how you can adequately take care of your child if they become afflicted. This article aims to provide you with such information.
What is Rheumatic Fever?
Rheumatic fever is a disease caused by a streptococcus infection, and it generally happens following strep throat or scarlet fever. Rheumatic fever typically affects children aged 5-15, but adults can acquire it as well.
Rheumatic fever is prevalent in south-central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and some parts of Australia and New Zealand.
It is an autoimmune disease that can affect your child’s skin, joints, brain, and heart. But it is not contagious. Rheumatic fever causes your child’s immune system to attack its tissues, which results in inflammation.
Symptoms of Rheumatic Fever
Streptococcus bacteria also cause rheumatic fever. However, strep throat does not always cause rheumatic fever. But if your child gets an early diagnosis and treatment for strep throat, they can prevent rheumatic fever from happening.
If your child exhibits any of these symptoms, you should consult your physician.
- Inflammation of the knees, ankles, elbows, and wrists (arthritis)
- Rosacea shaped like pink rings (this is an uncommon symptom)
- A fast heartbeat, a fast breathing pattern, chest pain, or shortness of breath – all signs of congestive heart failure
- Uncontrollable, jerky movements of the body (also known as “chorea”).
- Painless lumps under the skin near joints ( an uncommon symptom)
In addition, a child with rheumatic fever can have:
- an abnormal heartbeat
- an enlarged heart and
- fluid around the heart
Who Gets Rheumatic Fever?
Rheumatic fever can affect anyone – however, young children (5-15 years old) are more susceptible.
The onset of rheumatic fever usually happens two to three weeks after a strep throat infection or scarlet fever goes untreated.
In general, age groups less than five years and older than 15 are not at risk of acute rheumatic fever.
Wherever large groups of people gather together, infectious illnesses, such as group A strep, tend to spread. Crowded conditions may increase the risk of getting strep throat or scarlet fever, causing rheumatic fever. For example:
- in schools
- childcare centers
- and military training facilities
Causes of Rheumatic Fever
The immune system overreacts to rheumatic fever, causing your child’s body to attack healthy tissues. This overreaction can occur as a result of neglecting treatment for scarlet fever or strep throat. A group A streptococcus infection becomes resistant when you don’t administer antibiotics appropriately.
As your child’s immune system starts fighting back, the effects can cause damage to organs and healthy tissues instead of bacteria.
Diagnosis of Rheumatic Fever
A single test cannot diagnose rheumatic fever. The doctor can instead check the patient’s medical history, look for signs of illness, and use many tests, including:
- Echocardiography (or echo): a test that creates a picture of the heart’s activity
- Using a blood test to determine if your child recently had a group A strep infection
- Taking a throat swab to test for group A strep
- Electrocardiogram (EKG): an examination of the heart’s health
Complications Associated with Rheumatic Fever
Rheumatic fever can affect your child for months or sometimes years, and its presence can result in several complications. One of the main complications of rheumatic fever is rheumatic heart disease. Other complications include:
- Heart failure: It happens when the heart can’t pump enough blood around your child’s body.
- Damage to the heart muscle: Inflammation weakens the heart muscle and decreases the heart’s ability to pump blood
- Regurgitation of the aorta: occurs when the aortic valve leaks, causing blood to flow in the wrong direction.
- Aortic stenosis: Narrowing of the blood vessel that sprouts from the heart (aorta).
- Irregular heartbeat: It occurs in the upper chamber of the heart.
Rheumatic fever can result in permanent heart damage, stroke, and even death if left untreated. Endeavor to consult your doctor if your child develops any of the symptoms mentioned above.
Treatments for Rheumatic Fever
Medicines containing antibiotics
The pediatrician will prescribe antibiotics and possibly a long-term treatment plan for your child. In extraordinary cases, your child may need lifelong antibiotic treatment.
An anti-inflammatory treatment
A pain medication that is also anti-inflammatory, such as aspirin (Bayer) or naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), is often used as an anti-inflammatory treatment.
Despite the risk of Reye’s syndrome associated with aspirin use in some children’s diseases, aspirin’s benefits in treating rheumatic fever may exceed its risks. Additionally, doctors may prescribe corticosteroids for reducing inflammation.
A doctor may also recommend bed rest for your child and restricting their activities until the significant symptoms have passed. Depending upon the severity of the heart condition, bed rest may be necessary for a few weeks to a few months.
Can Rheumatic Fever Return?
Yes, rheumatic fever can return if your child gets strep throat or scarlet fever again.
Prevention of Rheumatic Fever
A complete course of antibiotics is the only way to prevent rheumatic fever after a strep throat infection or scarlet fever. Hygiene is also essential in guarding against grade A strep infection and scarlet fever, which causes rheumatic fever.
Encourage your child to cough or sneeze into their elbow instead of their hands when they are sick, and wash their hands frequently with antibacterial soap.
When Should You Call a Doctor?
Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you suspect your child has strep throat or scarlet fever. An early diagnosis can prevent rheumatic fever.