Caused by the group A streptococcus bacteria, also known as Streptococcus pyogenes, strep throat leaves its victims with sore throat pain that ranks about 197 on a scale of one to ten, along with fever, headaches, fatigue, swollen neck lymph glands, rash, and of course, difficulty swallowing. Who can swallow when you’re in that much pain, anyway?
It’s also known to cause swollen and inflamed tonsils, red spots on the roof of the mouth, and even some pretty upset stomachs and vomiting -- which is certainly not fun when your throat already feels like a mix of sandpaper and hot lava.
While strep throat can -- and does -- occur at any age, strep throat is extremely contagious and very common in children between the ages of five and fifteen.
Chances are that you either know someone who’s had strep throat or you have first-hand knowledge and experience regarding this not-so-wonderful little throat infection and its side effects can be. What you may not know, is that strep throat can lead to some rather serious health complications, including inflammation of the kidneys and rheumatic fever.
Rheumatic fever may lead to a serious heart condition referred to as rheumatic heart disease.
Since most sore throats aren’t caused by strep throat, it’s not uncommon to delay treatment, or once diagnosed, to fail to complete all of the prescribed doses of antibiotic. Even this writer has been guilty of holding back a couple of pills just in case I need them to knock out something else later.
While this is never a good idea, one of the unintended consequences of delaying or under treating strep throat is rheumatic fever. An inflammatory disease, rheumatic fever is caused by primarily by untreated, or inadequately treated, strep throat. While it’s less common, rheumatic fever may also be caused by scarlet fever.
Rheumatic fever causes inflammation. While symptoms may vary, rheumatic fever is characterized by fever, painful or tender joints, hot or red swollen joints, pain that migrates from joint to joint, chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, and a flat-raised rash.
According to the Mayo Clinic, persons with rheumatic fever may also experience “jerky, uncontrollable body movements” and “outbursts of unusual behavior, such as crying or inappropriate laughing.”
More importantly for heart health, rheumatic fever may lead to rheumatic heart disease, with the inflammation damaging the heart and heart valves. The resulting heart damage from rheumatic heart disease is permanent and has life-long consequences, including:
*Valve stenosis. Decreased blood flow due to narrowing of the heart valve; complications include heart failure, heart enlargement, blood clots, lung congestion, and atrial fibrillation; medications may be prescribed to lessen symptoms; valve repair or replacement required to treat mitral valve stenosis.
*Valve regurgitation. Blood flows in the wrong direction due to a leak in the valve; complications include heart failure, atrial fibrillation, endocarditis or infection of inner lining of the heart, and pulmonary hypertension or high blood pressure in lung arteries; medications may be prescribed to lessen symptoms; valve repair or replacement required.
Rheumatic heart disease may also result in permanent heart muscle damage, leaving the heart unable to pump adequate supplies of blood. Some people with rheumatic heart disease develop atrial fibrillation which affects the upper chambers of the heart causing irregular or out of sync heart beats. Another common complication from rheumatic heart disease is heart failure.
One of the easiest ways to prevent rheumatic heart disease is to prevent rheumatic fever. If you suspect strep throat, it’s important to not only seek medical attention early but to take the entire antibiotic as prescribed.
If strep throat is promptly -- and completely -- treated, it’s less common for rheumatic fever, along with its serious complications, to develop.
Rheumatic Fever. The Mayo Clinic. 21 Jan 2011. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/rheumatic-fever/DS00250/DSECTION=complications
Strep Throat. The Mayo Clinic. 26 Jun 2010. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/strep-throat/DS00260
Mitral Valve Stenosis. The Mayo Clinic. 15 Sept 2011. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mitral-valve-stenosis/DS00420
Mitral Valve Regurgitation. The Mayo Clinic. 15 Sept 2011. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mitral-valve-regurgitation/DS00421
Reviewed September 26, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith