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Rheumatic Heart Disease Australia

What is Rheumatic Heart Disease?

Rheumatic heart disease (RHD) is damage to one or more heart valves that remains after an episode of acute rheumatic fever (ARF) is resolved. It is caused by an episode or recurrent episodes of ARF, where the heart has become inflamed. The heart valves can remain stretched and/or scarred, and normal blood flow through damaged valves is interrupted. Blood may flow backward through stretched valves that do not close properly, or may be blocked due to scarred valves not opening properly. When the heart is damaged in this way, the heart valves are unable to function adequately, and heart surgery may be required.

Untreated, RHD causes heart failure and those affected are at risk of arrhythmias, stroke, endocarditis and complications of pregnancy. These conditions cause progressive disability, reduce quality of life and can cause premature death in young adults. Heart surgery can manage some of these problems and prolong life but does not cure RHD.

Rheumatic heart disease is a chronic, disabling and sometimes fatal disease that is entirely preventable.

What are the symptoms of rheumatic heart disease?

Symptoms of RHD may not be noticed for many years. When they do develop, symptoms depend on which heart valves are affected and the type and severity of the damage. Most people with RHD have a heart murmur which can be heard through a stethoscope. Symptoms of moderate to severe RHD can include chest pain, breathlessness with physical activity or when lying down, weakness and tiredness, and swelling of the legs and face.

See Mary's story for more information about rheumatic heart disease or visit our resources page for more educational material.