Introduction of rheumatic fever

Rheumatic fever is a serious complication that can develop following an untreated throat infection (by a type of bacteria called streptococcus).

Rheumatic fever is uncommon in the UK.

The symptoms of rheumatic fever include:

  • joint pain and swelling (arthritis)
  • inflammation of the heart, which can cause shortness of breath and chest pain
  • fever

Symptoms usually last around four weeks but can sometimes persist for several months.

Read more about the symptoms of rheumatic fever.

What causes rheumatic fever?

The symptoms of rheumatic fever are not caused by the bacteria itself, but the immune system’s response to the bacteria.

The immune system, which is the body’s defence against infection, mistakes healthy tissue for the streptococcus bacteria, which causes parts of the body to become inflamed (swollen and filled with fluid). This triggers the symptoms of rheumatic fever.

Read more about the causes of rheumatic fever.


There is currently no cure for rheumatic fever so treatment involves relieving symptoms with medication and trying to prevent permanent damage to the body, especially the heart.

Once a person has had an attack of rheumatic fever it is very common for them to have further attacks in the future. This can be prevented by taking a long-term course of antibiotics.

Read more about treating rheumatic fever.


Rheumatic fever can cause permanent damage to the valves of the heart, which is known as rheumatic heart disease.

Rheumatic heart disease can lead to serious complications, including heart failure and stroke.

Read more about the complications of rheumatic fever.

Who is affected

Rheumatic fever is very common in poorer parts of the world such as Africa, the Middle East and South America, where there is over-crowding, poor sanitation and limited access to medical treatment. It is estimated that just under half a million new cases of rheumatic fever occur worldwide each year.

The condition is now extremely rare in the UK due to higher standards of living and medical care. There were only 23 reported cases in England during 2010.

Most cases of rheumatic fever first develop in children between the ages of 5 and 15. It becomes less widespread in younger adults and it is very rare for it to develop in adults aged 35 or over. Both sexes are equally affected.


The outlook for people with rheumatic fever depends on whether they have experienced significant damage to the heart.

If the heart is damaged then it is unlikely to recover fully. In this case, the symptoms of rheumatic heart disease, such as shortness of breath and feeling tired all the time, will continue.

If the heart is undamaged, long-term use of antibiotics should prevent rheumatic fever from occurring again, which should prevent further damage to the heart.

Deaths associated with rheumatic heart disease are very rare in England and the rest of the developed world. In 2010 there were only six deaths related to rheumatic fever in England and Wales.

Antibiotics are medicines that can be used to treat infections caused by micro-organisms, usually bacteria or fungi. Examples of antibiotics include amoxicillin, streptomycin and erythromycin.
Bacteria are tiny, single-celled organisms that live in the body. Some can cause illness and disease and others are good for you.
A disease is an illness or condition that interferes with normal body functions.
A fever is when you have a high body temperature (over 38°C or 100.4°F).

Comments are closed.