There is a direct and well-described connection between certain streptococcal infections and rheumatic fever. Most commonly, rheumatic fever is preceded by a throat infection with group A beta-hemolytic Streptococcus (strep throat, group A beta-hemolytic streptococci, abbreviated as GABHS or GAS). The bacterium causes an autoimmune (antibodies that attack the host's own cells) inflammatory response in some people, which leads to the myriad of signs and symptoms described by the Jones criteria used to diagnose rheumatic fever.
Streptococcal throat infections are contagious, but rheumatic fever is not. The symptoms of rheumatic fever generally develop within two to three weeks of an infection with streptococcal bacteria, and usually the first symptoms are painful joints or arthritis.
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