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What Is Endocarditis?

Endocarditis (EN-do-kar-DI-tis) is an infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers and valves. This lining is called the endocardium (en-do-KAR-de-um). The condition also is called infective endocarditis (IE).

The term "endocarditis" also is used to describe an inflammation of the endocardium due to other conditions. This article only discusses endocarditis related to infection.

IE occurs if bacteria, fungi, or other germs invade your bloodstream and attach to abnormal areas of your heart. The infection can damage your heart and cause serious and sometimes fatal complications.

IE can develop quickly or slowly; it depends on what type of germ is causing it and whether you have an underlying heart problem. When IE develops quickly, it's called acute infective endocarditis. When it develops slowly, it's called subacute infective endocarditis.

Overview

IE mainly affects people who have:

  • Damaged or artificial (man-made) heart valves
  • Congenital heart defects (defects present at birth)
  • Implanted medical devices in the heart or blood vessels

People who have normal heart valves also can have IE. However, the condition is much more common in people who have abnormal hearts.

Certain factors make it easier for bacteria to enter your bloodstream. These factors put you at higher risk for IE. For example, poor dental hygiene and unhealthy teeth and gums increase your risk for the infection.

Other risk factors include using intravenous (IV) drugs, having a catheter (tube) or another medical device in your body for long periods, and having a history of IE.

Common symptoms of IE are fever and other flu-like symptoms. Because the infection can affect people in different ways, the signs and symptoms vary. IE also can cause problems in many other parts of the body besides the heart.

If you're at high risk for IE, seek medical care if you have signs or symptoms of the infection, especially a fever that persists or unexplained fatigue (tiredness).

Outlook

IE is treated with antibiotics for several weeks. You also may need heart surgery to repair or replace heart valves or remove infected heart tissue.

Most people who are treated with the proper antibiotics recover. But if the infection isn't treated, or if it persists despite treatment (for example, if the bacteria are resistant to antibiotics), it's usually fatal.

If you have signs or symptoms of IE, see your doctor as soon as you can, especially if you have abnormal heart valves.

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October 1, 2010