The sound we know as a “heartbeat” is actually caused by the opening and closing of valves inside our hearts.
Our hearts have four valves that direct the flow of blood through our hearts by opening and closing in a rhythmic pattern. Healthy heart valves keep our blood flowing in the proper direction and at the proper rate. Damage to these valves can impede the flow of blood through the heart. This, in turn, can have cascading effects throughout our bodies.
Infections can occur in the heart valves when bacteria enters the heart through the bloodstream. Bacteria can enter the bloodstream through normal activities, such as brushing our teeth or sustaining a small abrasion while playing sports. These bacteria can reach the heart and contaminate the valves, causing infection.
This infection of the heart valves, called endocarditis, affects the inner membrane that separates the valves and chambers of the heart. Our bodies have difficulty fighting off this type of infection because our heart valves do not have a direct blood supply of their own. Therefore, they don’t get the benefit of our body’s natural immune system.
One of the earliest symptoms of endocarditis is a fever, generally in the range of 102º – 104ºF. The patient may experience chills and an increase in his or her heart rate. The patient may feel an aching in the muscles and joints, along with night sweats. There may be swelling in the abdomen, legs and feet as well as difficulty breathing and a persistent cough.
Infections in the heart valves can become chronic, known as chronic endocarditis. This condition may develop over a period of weeks, with symptoms including fatigue, a mild fever and weight loss.
Endocarditis, once diagnosed, is treatable. When diagnosed early, treatment usually includes rest in conjunction with two to six weeks of high doses of antibiotics, usually given through an IV. If damage to the valve is severe, treatment may include surgery.
Preventative measures and awareness of the risks can lead to a decrease in the incidence of heart valve infection. When considering certain surgical, dental or medical procedures, those identified as at risk for endocarditis should receive a round of prophylactic antibiotics before their procedures.
The staff at Ocala Wound Care can answer any questions you have about preventing and treating heart valve infection.