Rheumatic Fever


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Rheumatic heart disease, gross pathology 20G0013 lores.jpg
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OpenStax Microbiology

Infections with S. pyogenes have a variety of manifestations and complications generally called sequelae. As mentioned, the bacterium can cause suppurative infections like puerperal fever. However, this microbe can also cause nonsuppurative sequelae in the form of acute rheumatic fever (ARF), which can lead to rheumatic heart disease, thus impacting the circulatory system. Rheumatic fever occurs primarily in children a minimum of 2–3 weeks after an episode of untreated or inadequately treated pharyngitis. At one time, rheumatic fever was a major killer of children in the US; today, however, it is rare in the US because of early diagnosis and treatment of streptococcal pharyngitis with antibiotics. In parts of the world where diagnosis and treatment are not readily available, acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease are still major causes of mortality in children.

Rheumatic fever is characterized by a variety of diagnostic signs and symptoms caused by nonsuppurative, immune-mediated damage resulting from a cross-reaction between patient antibodies to bacterial surface proteins and similar proteins found on cardiac, neuronal, and synovial tissues. Damage to the nervous tissue or joints, which leads to joint pain and swelling, is reversible. However, damage to heart valves can be irreversible and is worsened by repeated episodes of acute rheumatic fever, particularly during the first 3–5 years after the first rheumatic fever attack. The inflammation of the heart valves caused by cross-reacting antibodies leads to scarring and stiffness of the valve leaflets. This, in turn, produces a characteristic heart murmur. Patients who have previously developed rheumatic fever and who subsequently develop recurrent pharyngitis due to S. pyogenes are at high risk for a recurrent attacks of rheumatic fever.

The American Heart Association recommends a treatment regimen consisting of benzathine benzylpenicillin every 3 or 4 weeks, depending on the patient’s risk for reinfection. Additional prophylactic antibiotic treatment may be recommended depending on the age of the patient and risk for reinfection.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology