Getting an infection in any part of your body can be dangerous. Finding out it’s in your heart can be alarming. Endocarditis is a life-threatening inflammation of the inner lining – or endocardium – of the heart’s chambers and valves. Endocarditis is usually caused by an infection when bacteria, fungi or other germs get into the bloodstream and attach to damaged areas in the heart.
“How common this condition is depends on the community and its population. Patients with poor immunity and multiple medical problems certainly are at the highest risk,” said Dr. Shereif Rezkalla, Marshfield Clinic Health System interventional cardiologist.
Risk factors and endocarditis symptoms
Endocarditis usually occurs when germs from elsewhere in the body travel through the blood and attach to damaged areas of the heart. Without treatment, it can be fatal. In addition to poor immunity or other medical problems, people with damaged or artificial heart valves or other heart conditions are also at risk.
“The most common area to discover endocarditis is cardiac valves,” Dr. Rezkalla said.
Patients with poor dental hygiene or a past bout with endocarditis remain at risk.
“If you have bad teeth or a bad skin infection with an aggressive organism that gets into the blood stream, and you have a valve that is not healthy or have bad immunity, or an artificial valve without the protective mechanisms to protect it, bacteria will get in the valve and stick there and grow,” Dr. Rezkalla said.
Symptoms vary based on the severity of the infection, but may include fevers, chills and fatigue. Weight loss, aches and pains, and heart murmurs could also occur as a result of endocarditis.
Social behavior also a risk factor
Social behavior factors into the likelihood of contracting endocarditis. People using illicit intravenous drugs often are susceptible to this infection due to associated behavior such as sharing of needles and using dirty needles.
“A valve infection in Central Wisconsin is not the rarest but is not common. I would label it as not common and mostly in patients with artificial valves,” Dr. Rezkalla said. “In areas with more IV drug abusers and shared needles, it can be very common.”
After effects of endocarditis
While most endocarditis patients are treated with antibiotics over an extended period, some may require surgery. “Some organisms are very difficult to treat and the infection may never go away without surgery to remove the infected valve,” Dr. Rezkalla said.
Complications from endocarditis include heart failure, heart valve damage, stroke and damage to other organs such as kidneys and spleen. Depending on the severity of the infection, morbidity is high.
“Endocarditis is a serious condition and has a poor prognosis if untreated,” Dr. Rezkalla said. “If treated appropriately by specialists it may be placed under control and is usually cured.”
If you are experiencing endocarditis symptoms, talk to your provider as soon as possible.