Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Rheumatic Fever

By

Geoffrey A. Weinberg

, MD, Golisano Children’s Hospital

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2024
VIEW PROFESSIONAL VERSION
Topic Resources

Rheumatic fever is inflammation of the joints, heart, skin, and nervous system, resulting from a complication of untreated streptococcal infection of the throat.

  • Rheumatic fever is a reaction to an untreated streptococcal throat infection.

  • Children may have a combination of joint pain, fever, chest pain or palpitations, jerky uncontrollable movements, a rash, and small bumps under the skin.

  • The diagnosis is based on symptoms.

  • Aspirin is given to alleviate pain, and antibiotics are given to eliminate the streptococcal infection.

  • Prompt and complete antibiotic treatment of any streptococcal throat infection is the best way to prevent rheumatic fever.

Although rheumatic fever occurs after a streptococcal throat infection (strep throat Sore Throat Sore throat is pain in the back of the throat. A sore throat can be very painful and is usually worsened by swallowing. Many people with a sore throat refuse to eat or drink. Sometimes pain... read more Sore Throat ), it is not an infection. Rather, it is an inflammatory reaction to the streptococcal infection. The parts of the body most commonly affected by the inflammation include the

  • Joints

  • Heart

  • Skin

  • Nervous system

Most people with rheumatic fever recover, but the heart is permanently damaged in a small percentage of people.

Rheumatic fever can occur at any age but occurs most often between 5 years and 15 years of age. In resource-rich countries, rheumatic fever rarely develops before age 3 or after age 21 and is much less common than in resource-poor countries, probably because antibiotics are widely used to treat streptococcal infections at an early stage. However, the incidence of rheumatic fever sometimes rises and falls in a particular area for unknown reasons.

Overcrowded living conditions, undernutrition, and lower social and economic status seem to increase the risk of rheumatic fever. Heredity seems to play a part because the tendency to develop rheumatic fever appears to run in families.

In the United States, a child who has a streptococcal throat infection but is not treated has a very low chance of developing rheumatic fever. However, about half of the children who have had rheumatic fever develop it again after another streptococcal throat infection if that infection is not treated.

Rheumatic fever occurs after streptococcal infections of the throat but not after streptococcal infections of the skin (impetigo Impetigo and Ecthyma Impetigo is a superficial skin infection that leads to the formation of scabby, yellow-crusted sores and, sometimes, small blisters filled with yellow fluid. It is caused by Staphylococcus... read more Impetigo and Ecthyma ) or other areas of the body. The reasons why are not known.

Symptoms of Rheumatic Fever

Symptoms of rheumatic fever vary greatly, depending on which parts of the body become inflamed. Typically, symptoms begin 2 to 3 weeks after the disappearance of throat symptoms. The most common symptoms of rheumatic fever are

  • Joint pain

  • Fever

  • Chest pain or palpitations caused by heart inflammation (carditis)

  • Jerky, uncontrollable movements (Sydenham chorea)

  • Rash (erythema marginatum)

  • Small bumps (nodules) under the skin

A child may have one symptom or several symptoms.

Joints

Joint pain and fever are the most common first symptoms. One or several joints suddenly become painful and feel tender when touched. They may also be warm, swollen, and red (arthritis). Joints may be stiff and may contain fluid. Ankles, knees, elbows, and wrists are usually affected. The shoulders, hips, and small joints of the hands and feet also may be affected. As pain or arthritis in one joint lessens, pain or arthritis in another joint starts (called migratory pain or migratory arthritis).

Joint pains may be mild or severe and typically last about 2 weeks and rarely more than 4 weeks.

Rheumatic fever does not cause long-term joint damage or long-term arthritis.

Heart

Some children with heart inflammation have no symptoms, and the inflammation is recognized years later when heart damage is discovered. Some children feel their heart beating rapidly. Other children have chest pain caused by inflammation of the sac around the heart (pericarditis Acute Pericarditis Acute pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium (the flexible two-layered sac that envelops the heart) that begins suddenly, is often painful, and causes fluid and blood components such... read more Acute Pericarditis ). Children may have a high fever, chest pain, or both.

Heart murmurs Physical Examination Physical Examination are sounds that occur as blood flows through the heart. Children commonly have quiet heart murmurs. However, murmurs that are loud or have changed sometimes mean the child has a heart valve disorder Overview of Heart Valve Disorders Heart valves regulate the flow of blood through the heart's four chambers—two small, round upper chambers (atria) and two larger, cone-shaped lower chambers (ventricles). Each ventricle has... read more Overview of Heart Valve Disorders . When rheumatic fever involves the heart, the heart valves are commonly affected, which causes the development of new, larger, or different murmurs that doctors can hear using a stethoscope.

Heart inflammation disappears gradually, usually within 5 months. However, it may permanently damage the heart valves, resulting in rheumatic heart disease. The likelihood of developing rheumatic heart disease varies with the severity of the initial heart inflammation and also depends on whether recurring streptococcal infections are treated.

Skin

Erythema marginatum is a flat, painless rash with a wavy edge that may appear as the other symptoms subside. It lasts for only a short time, sometimes less than a day.

Small, hard, painless lumps (nodules) may form under the skin in children with heart or joint inflammation. The nodules typically appear near the affected joints and go away after a while.

Nervous system

Sydenham chorea is a complication of rheumatic fever that causes jerky, uncontrollable movements, usually of both arms and legs and particularly of the face, feet, and hands. Sydenham chorea may begin gradually in some children with rheumatic fever but usually only after all other symptoms have subsided. A month may go by before the jerky movements become so intense that the child is taken to a doctor. By then, the child typically has rapid, purposeless, sporadic movements that disappear during sleep. The movements may involve any muscle except those of the eyes. They may begin in the hands and spread to the feet and face. Facial grimacing (a distorted expression on the face) is common. Children may cluck their tongue, or the tongue may dart in and out of the mouth.

In mild cases, children may seem clumsy and may have slight difficulties in dressing and eating. In severe cases, children may have to be protected from injuring themselves with their flailing arms or legs. The chorea usually lasts between 4 months and 8 months but may return later.

Diagnosis of Rheumatic Fever

  • Established clinical criteria

  • Throat cultures

  • Blood tests

  • Electrocardiography and often echocardiography

A doctor bases the diagnosis of rheumatic fever on a combination of symptoms and test results called the modified Jones criteria (see How Do Doctors Diagnose Rheumatic Fever? How Do Doctors Diagnose Rheumatic Fever? How Do Doctors Diagnose Rheumatic Fever? ).

Although there is no laboratory test that specifically diagnoses rheumatic fever, doctors do blood tests to look for high levels of antibodies to streptococci. Doctors also look for streptococci by swabbing the child's throat and sending the swab to a laboratory for examination.

Other blood tests, such as the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein, help doctors determine whether inflammation is present in the body and how widespread it is. The ESR and C-reactive protein are increased when inflammation is present.

If doctors are not sure whether a red, swollen joint is caused by a joint infection, rather than rheumatic fever, they may use a needle to remove fluid from the joint (joint aspiration Joint aspiration (arthrocentesis) A doctor can often diagnose a musculoskeletal disorder based on the history and the results of a physical examination. Laboratory tests, imaging tests, or other diagnostic procedures are sometimes... read more Joint aspiration (arthrocentesis) ) and do tests on the fluid.

How Do Doctors Diagnose Rheumatic Fever?

Doctors use the modified Jones criteria to help them diagnose rheumatic fever. Doctors diagnose children with rheumatic fever if they have had a streptococcal infection and 2 major criteria or 1 major criterion and 2 minor criteria:

  • Major criteria for rheumatic fever:

    • Inflammation of the heart (carditis)

    • Jerky, uncontrollable movements (Sydenham chorea)

    • Rash (erythema marginatum)

    • Redness, pain, and swelling (arthritis) in several joints

    • Bumps (nodules) under the skin

  • Minor criteria for rheumatic fever:

    • Pain in several joints (without redness or swelling)

    • Elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate or C-reactive protein

    • Fever

    • Abnormal heart rhythms

Treatment of Rheumatic Fever

  • Antibiotics

  • Aspirin

  • Sometimes corticosteroids

Treatment of rheumatic fever has 3 goals:

  • Eliminating any remaining streptococcal infection

  • Reducing inflammation, particularly in the joints and heart, and thus relieving symptoms

  • Preventing future infections

Doctors give children with rheumatic fever antibiotics to eliminate any remaining infection. A long-acting penicillin is given as a single injection or penicillin or amoxicillin is given by mouth for 10 days.

Aspirin is given in high doses for several weeks to reduce inflammation and pain, particularly if inflammation has reached the joints and heart.

Some other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen, may be as effective as aspirin, but, in most children, aspirin is preferred for the treatment of rheumatic fever.

If heart inflammation is moderate to severe, the corticosteroid prednisone is given by mouth (orally) instead of aspirin to reduce inflammation. If the inflammation is still not reduced, a corticosteroid may be given by vein (intravenously). As the dose of oral corticosteroids is reduced, aspirin is started.

Children should limit their activities if they have joint pain, chorea, or heart failure. Children who do not have inflammation of the heart do not need to limit their activities after the illness subsides. Prolonged bed rest is not helpful.

Preventive treatment (antibiotic prophylaxis)

The best way to prevent rheumatic fever is with prompt and complete antibiotic treatment of any streptococcal throat infection.

In addition, children who have had rheumatic fever should be given penicillin by injection into the muscle every 3 to 4 weeks to help prevent another streptococcal infection. In some cases, penicillin is given by mouth instead of injection. When antibiotics are given to people who do not yet have an infection, this preventive treatment is called prophylaxis.

How long this preventive treatment should be continued is unclear but often depends on the severity of the disease. Children who do not have carditis should receive prophylaxis for 5 years or until age 21 (whichever is longer). Some experts recommend that children who do have carditis should receive prophylaxis for 10 years or until age 21 (whichever is longer). Children who have carditis and heart damage should receive prophylaxis for more than 10 years, and some experts recommend these children receive prophylaxis for life or until age 40. People, who have severe heart valve damage and who have close contact with young children should receive prophylaxis for life because the children may carry streptococcal bacteria, which could reinfect such people.

Prognosis for Rheumatic Fever

Rheumatic fever and some of the problems it causes, such as inflammation of the heart and Sydenham chorea, can return. Episodes of Sydenham chorea usually last several months and resolve completely in most people, but the disorder returns in about one third of people. Joint problems (such as pain and swelling) are not permanent, but the heart inflammation can be permanent and severe, especially if streptococcal infections return and are not treated.

Heart murmurs caused by rheumatic fever eventually disappear in some people, but many people have permanent murmurs and some degree of heart valve damage.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
Amoxil, Dispermox, Moxatag, Moxilin , Sumox, Trimox
Anacin Adult Low Strength, Aspergum, Aspir-Low, Aspirtab , Aspir-Trin , Bayer Advanced Aspirin, Bayer Aspirin, Bayer Aspirin Extra Strength, Bayer Aspirin Plus, Bayer Aspirin Regimen, Bayer Children's Aspirin, Bayer Extra Strength, Bayer Extra Strength Plus, Bayer Genuine Aspirin, Bayer Low Dose Aspirin Regimen, Bayer Womens Aspirin , BeneHealth Aspirin, Bufferin, Bufferin Extra Strength, Bufferin Low Dose, DURLAZA, Easprin , Ecotrin, Ecotrin Low Strength, Genacote, Halfprin, MiniPrin, St. Joseph Adult Low Strength, St. Joseph Aspirin, VAZALORE, Zero Order Release Aspirin, ZORprin
Aflaxen, Aleve, Aleve Arthritis, All Day Pain Relief, All Day Relief, Anaprox, Anaprox DS, EC-Naprosyn, Midol Extended Relief, Naprelan, Naprelan Dose Card, Naprosyn
Deltasone, Predone, RAYOS, Sterapred, Sterapred DS
NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: VIEW PROFESSIONAL VERSION
VIEW PROFESSIONAL VERSION
quiz link

Test your knowledge

Take a Quiz!
iOS ANDROID
iOS ANDROID
iOS ANDROID
TOP