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Kawasaki Disease

(Kawasaki's Disease)


Christopher P. Raab

, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2023
Topic Resources

Kawasaki disease causes inflammation of blood vessels throughout the body.

  • The cause of Kawasaki disease is unknown but may be associated with an infection.

  • Children typically have fever, rash, and a red strawberry tongue, and some develop heart complications that rarely can be fatal.

  • The diagnosis is based on established criteria.

  • With prompt treatment, nearly all children recover.

  • Children are given high doses of immune globulin and aspirin.

Kawasaki disease causes inflammation in the walls of blood vessels (vasculitis Overview of Vasculitis Vasculitic disorders are caused by inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis). Vasculitis can be triggered by certain infections or drugs or can occur for unknown reasons. People may have... read more Overview of Vasculitis ) throughout the body. Inflammation of blood vessels in the heart causes the most serious problems. The inflammation also can spread to other parts of the body such as the pancreas and kidneys.

Most children with Kawasaki disease are between 1 and 5 years of age, although infants and older children and adolescents can be affected. Roughly one and one half times as many boys as girls are affected. The illness is more common among children of Japanese descent.

Several thousand cases of Kawasaki disease are estimated to occur in the United States every year. Kawasaki disease occurs year-round but most often in spring or winter.

The cause of Kawasaki disease is unknown, but evidence suggests a virus or other infectious organism triggers an abnormal immune system response in genetically predisposed children.

Symptoms of Kawasaki Disease

The illness begins with fever that is usually above 102.2° F (39° C) and that rises and falls over 1 to 3 weeks. The child's temperature does not return to normal unless medications that lower the temperature (such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen) are given. Within a day or two, the eyes become red but do not have any discharge.

The skin on the fingers and toes begins to peel about 10 days after the illness starts. The lymph nodes in the neck are often swollen and slightly tender. The illness may last from 2 to 12 weeks or longer.

Complications of Kawasaki disease

If children are not treated, heart problems may develop, usually beginning 1 to 4 weeks after the illness starts. A few children develop the most serious heart problem, a bulge in the wall of a coronary artery (coronary artery aneurysm Overview of Aortic Aneurysms and Aortic Dissection The aorta, which is about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter, is the largest artery of the body. It receives oxygen-rich blood from the left ventricle of the heart and distributes it to all... read more ). These aneurysms can rupture or provoke a blood clot, leading to a heart attack and sudden death. Treatment greatly reduces the risk of heart complications.

Other problems may include painful inflammation of the tissues lining the brain (meningitis), ears, eyes, liver, joints, urethra, and gallbladder. These symptoms eventually resolve without causing permanent damage.

Diagnosis of Kawasaki Disease

  • Established criteria

  • Electrocardiography and ultrasonography of the heart

  • Laboratory tests

Doctors diagnose Kawasaki disease when children have at least 4 out of 5 defined symptoms (see sidebar ).

How Do Doctors Diagnose Kawasaki Disease?

Doctors diagnose children with Kawasaki disease if they have had a fever for 5 days or more and if they have at least 4 of the following 5 symptoms:

  • Red eyes with no discharge

  • Reddened, dry, cracked lips and a red strawberry tongue

  • Swelling, redness, and peeling of the hands and feet

  • Red, patchy rash over the trunk

  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes in the neck

Blood tests and cultures of the blood and throat are also done to rule out other disorders that cause similar symptoms (such as measles, scarlet fever, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children [MIS-C]).

Doctors who specialize in treating children's heart disorders (pediatric cardiologists) or infectious diseases are often consulted.

Once Kawasaki disease is diagnosed, children have electrocardiography Electrocardiography Electrocardiography (ECG) is a quick, simple, painless procedure in which the heart’s electrical impulses are amplified and recorded. This record, the electrocardiogram (also known as an ECG)... read more Electrocardiography (ECG) and ultrasonography of the heart (echocardiography Echocardiography and Other Ultrasound Procedures Ultrasonography uses high-frequency (ultrasound) waves bounced off internal structures to produce a moving image. It uses no x-rays. Ultrasonography of the heart (echocardiography) is one of... read more Echocardiography and Other Ultrasound Procedures ) to look for coronary artery aneurysms, leaking heart valves, inflammation of the sac that surrounds the heart (pericarditis Overview of Pericardial Disease Pericardial disease affects the pericardium, which is the flexible two-layered sac that envelops the heart. The pericardium helps keep the heart in position, helps prevent the heart from overfilling... read more Overview of Pericardial Disease ), or inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis Myocarditis Myocarditis is inflammation of the muscle tissue of the heart (myocardium) that causes tissue death. Myocarditis may be caused by many disorders, including infection, toxins and drugs that affect... read more ). Sometimes abnormalities do not appear right away, so these tests are repeated 2 to 3 weeks, 6 to 8 weeks, and perhaps 6 to 12 months after symptoms began. If ECG or echocardiography test results are abnormal, doctors may do a stress test Stress Testing Stressing the heart (by exercise or by use of stimulant drugs to make the heart beat faster and more forcibly) can help identify coronary artery disease. In coronary artery disease, blood flow... read more Stress Testing . If an aneurysm is seen during echocardiography, children may have heart catheterization Cardiac Catheterization and Coronary Angiography Cardiac catheterization and coronary angiography are minimally invasive methods of studying the heart and the blood vessels that supply the heart (coronary arteries) without doing surgery. These... read more Cardiac Catheterization and Coronary Angiography .

Treatment of Kawasaki Disease

  • High doses of immune globulin and aspirin

Treatment for Kawasaki disease is started as soon as possible. Treatment given within the first 10 days of symptoms significantly reduces the risk of coronary artery damage and speeds the resolution of fever, rash, and discomfort.

For 1 to 4 days, high doses of immune globulin are given by vein, and high doses of aspirin are given by mouth. As soon as the child has no fever for 4 to 5 days, the dose of aspirin is lowered but still given for at least 8 weeks from the beginning of illness. If there are no coronary artery aneurysms and signs of inflammation are gone, aspirin may be stopped. However, children with coronary artery abnormalities require long-term treatment with aspirin.

Children with large coronary aneurysms may be treated with medications that prevent the blood from clotting (anticoagulants).

Prognosis for Kawasaki Disease

With treatment, children recover completely if their coronary arteries are not affected. For children with coronary artery problems, the outcome varies with the severity of the disease. However, with early treatment, almost no children with Kawasaki disease in the United States die.

Without treatment, some children die. Of the children who die, death nearly always occurs in the first 6 months but can occur as long as 10 years later.

About two thirds of the aneurysms go away within 1 year. Large aneurysms are more likely to remain. However, even when aneurysms go away, children have an increased risk of heart problems in adulthood.

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