Kids health

What is Kawasaki Disease and Its Symptoms in Children?

Kawasaki disease causes a high fever and rash in young children. Here's what you need to know about this rare, but serious childhood illness.

What is Kawasaki Disease and Its Symptoms in Children?


Kawasaki disease is rare—only about 9 to 20 children in 100,000 under age 5 get it in the United States, according to the CDC. But it can cause heart complications—sometimes for the rest of your child's life. So, it's an important condition for parents and caregivers to be aware of.

But what is Kawasaki disease? Here's what you need to know about this childhood illness.

What is Kawasaki Disease?

Kawasaki disease, also known as Kawasaki syndrome, mainly affects children aged 6 months to 5 years. It was named after Tomisaku Kawasaki, who discovered the illness in 1967 in Japan.

If your child has Kawasaki disease, it means the blood vessels in their body have become inflamed. That inflammation can cause the vessels to stretch out and become weak. When this happens, they're at risk for tearing and narrowing, making it harder to deliver oxygen through the blood to the rest of the body.

Healthcare providers are most concerned when this inflammation affects the coronary arteries, which supply oxygen to the heart and are most at risk for complications. If the coronary vessels are damaged, blood clots can form, reducing the blood supply to the heart muscle.

Causes and risk factors of Kawasaki Disease

You aren't born with Kawasaki disease—it's a type of heart disease that children can get, but healthcare providers aren't sure why it happens. Some causes could be infections, genetics, and environmental factors.

There's no research suggesting those who have Kawasaki disease can spread it to others, but there are certain factors that can increase your child's risk. "Kawasaki disease is more common in people of Asian or Pacific Island descent," explains Dr. Juan Alejos. It also can affect children under the age of 5. Dr. Alejos says boys are slightly more likely than girls to develop the condition.

doctor examining young child iStock

What are the symptoms of Kawasaki Disease?


Early-stage symptoms of Kawasaki disease include:

  • High fever that can last for up to 5 days
  • A rash over the back, chest, arms, and legs
  • Redness in the hands and feet
  • Swelling and redness in the mouth, lips and throat
  • "Strawberry tongue," which is when the tongue gets bumpy and red because the taste buds are swollen
  • Red eyes
  • Swollen lymph nodes on one side of the neck. Lymph node swelling is why Kawasaki disease is also known as mucocutaneous lymph node syndrome

In the second stage, children who develop Kawasaki disease can experience worsening symptoms such as joint pain, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea. Skin peeling on the fingers and toes can happen in weeks 2 and 3 of the illness.

Your child needs to get a diagnosis as soon as possible. If left untreated, Kawasaki disease can cause heart complications, including:

  • Aneurysms, which are when the artery walls bulge and thin, which can lead to blood clots and heart attacks
  • Heart inflammation, which can affect the heart's ability to pump
  • Problems with the valves of the heart

What is the diagnostic process for Kawasaki Disease?

To diagnose Kawasaki disease, your child's healthcare provider must perform a physical exam and ask about symptoms. They might also collect blood and urine samples to determine whether there is inflammation in the body. Testing can also help rule out any other illnesses.

An echocardiogram and an electrocardiogram (EKG) are tests your child's provider might perform to determine the heart's health and detect any heart damage.

How is Kawasaki Disease treated?


The goals of treatment are to reduce the inflammation in the blood vessels, prevent damage to the coronary vessels in the heart, and manage symptoms. Most kids who are being treated for Kawasaki disease need to be hospitalized.

Aspirin is sometimes given in high doses under the supervision of a healthcare provider to treat Kawasaki symptoms such as inflammation, fever, and pain.

Dr. Alejos says intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) is used to reduce inflammation. "It's the cornerstone of treatment used to help reduce the risk of coronary artery disease." IVIG is given through a vein in your child's arm. According to Dr. Alejos, it's most effective if it's started within ten days of your child showing symptoms.

doctor examines young baby iStock


What happens if Kawasaki disease isn't treated?

If untreated, children with Kawasaki disease can develop heart complications such as coronary artery aneurysm, myocarditis, and problems with their heart rhythm, according to Dr. Alejos. "Early diagnosis is important for early intervention," he explains.

How do I know if my child might have Kawasaki disease?

Dr. Alejos says if your child develops a high fever and medications or other treatments aren't bringing the fever down, pay attention to any other symptoms, such as a rash on the body, swelling in the lymph nodes, and a "strawberry tongue." Contact your provider to be seen in the clinic.

How can I help my child feel more comfortable during treatment?


There are some steps you can take to help your child feel better while they're being treated for Kawasaki disease, including:

  • Using cold compresses on the rash or painful areas
  • Giving medications to reduce the fever
  • Encouraging your child to get plenty of rest
  • Not skipping any follow-up appointments with your child's healthcare provider


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