A type of vasculitis, Kawasaki disease is a rare condition that causes inflammation in arteries throughout the body, including the heart’s blood vessels, or the coronary arteries. Kawasaki disease mostly affects children who are younger than 5 years old, though children as old as 13 and as young a newborn can have the condition. What causes Kawasaki disease hasn’t been discovered. Left untreated, Kawasaki disease can increase the risk that your child’s coronary arteries and other parts of the heart may develop problems. But with treatment, most children who have Kawasaki disease fully recover without any serious or lasting effects.

Wellness & Prevention

Although symptoms usually abate after a couple of weeks, Kawasaki disease can make children very ill and the impacts on the heart and its blood vessels can be significant. Coronary arteries are a critical part of a healthy heart because they supply the heart muscle with the oxygen-rich blood it needs to keep working. Kawasaki disease can weaken the wall in coronary arteries, causing a bulge where blood clots can form and potentially cut off blood flow to the heart muscle. Without enough oxygenated blood, the heart muscle can suffer damage.

Kawasaki disease can also cause inflammation and irritation in the heart muscle, the outer lining of the heart (pericardium) and other of areas of the body, such as the skin, lymph nodes and mucous membranes of the throat, mouth and nose. A child with Kawasaki disease may also develop an irregular heartbeat or problems with her heart valves.

For most children, the effects of Kawasaki disease on the heart may only last five or six weeks and no permanent damage is caused. It may take more time for problems with the coronary arteries to go away.

Each child may experience Kawasaki disease differently but symptoms tend to last 10 to 14 days and may include:

  • Swollen, painful joints
  • Peeling skin
  • A moderate to high fever for at least five days
  • Irritability
  • Spotty, bright red rash
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Bloodshot or red eyes
  • Red, dry, cracked lips
  • Red, swollen palms and the soles of the feet

Diagnosis

A pediatric cardiologist may suspect Kawasaki disease based on your child’s medical history, symptoms and a physical examination. Tests to help confirm a diagnosis include:

  • Lab tests: Your pediatric cardiologist may have a complete blood count (CBC) blood test done to look for elevated platelet levels and a high number of white blood cells. A urine sample can also be tested to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms.
  • Chest X-ray: An X-ray produces an image of the organs, bones and tissue in your child’s chest.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): Electrocardiograms record electrical activity in the heart through electrodes placed on your baby’s chest, arms and legs. An ECG can detect cardiac arrhythmias and damage to the heart muscle.
  • Echocardiogram: Using ultrasound technology, an echocardiogram gives a pediatric cardiologist a moving image of the heart and valves.

Treatments

Kawasaki disease is treated with medication to mitigate damage and ease symptoms as the illness runs its course. Children with acute symptoms may be hospitalized for a few days though if IV medications are used. Your pediatric cardiologist may prescribe:

  • Aspirin: Taken at high doses, aspirin helps lower the risk of blood clots and reduce inflammation. A low dose of aspirin may be taken for 6 to 8 weeks or longer to further protect the blood vessels and heart, especially if an aneurysm develops.
  • Gamma globulin or corticosteroids: Given through an IV, gamma globulin helps the immune system fight the infection and may lessen the risk of damage to the heart and coronary arteries. Children who don’t respond to gamma globulin may be given corticosteroids instead.

Aftercare

Most children make a complete recovery after Kawasaki disease. Your child may need to continue seeing a pediatric cardiologist on a regular basis to check for problems with the heart and blood vessels. Ongoing care is important because heart problems can develop well after Kawasaki disease and your child may not have any symptoms. A child who has had Kawasaki disease may also be at risk for early coronary artery disease later in life. Adopting heart-healthy habits and seeing a cardiologist as an adult can help prevent coronary artery disease.