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What is Kawasaki Disease?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 17, 2024
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Kawasaki disease, or Kawasaki syndrome, is a type of vasculitis that usually affects kids aged five and younger. It is a condition that affects the mouth, skin and lymph nodes. First documented in 1967 by Dr. Tomisaku Kawasaki in Japan, Kawasaki disease is the number one cause of heart disease among children that is acquired, not congenital.

The majority of children affected by Kawasaki disease are younger than two. Although it can affect anyone, it is more typically found among children of Korean and Japanese heritage. In the United States, 19 out of every 100,000 children are affected.

Currently, there is no known cause of the disease, although some studies show a possible microbial cause. Fortunately, early treatment can mean full recovery in a few short days. The disease can, however, progress to serious heart complications if left untreated.

Symptoms of Kawasaki disease come in two separate phases. The first phase is approximately two weeks in duration and is primarily characterized by a nearly constant fever of about 104°F (39°C) that lasts for up to five days. Red, irritated eyes are usually present as well. Also present are swollen, purplish-red colored palms and soles, accompanied by a rash covering the trunk and genitals. A sore throat and enlarged tongue may be present, and the tongue may be covered in large, red bumps and a white coating. The lips may also be dried and cracked, and the lymph nodes may be tender and swollen.

The second phase of Kawasaki disease arrives within two weeks of the onset of the first phase of symptoms. The onset of the second phase can come on the 10th to the 14th day. In this phase, the skins starts to peel off in large sections. Pain in the joints, diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting are other symptoms associated with the second phase. Kawasaki disease must be treated by the 10th day after the first symptoms appear in order to avoid possible heart complications.

Diagnosis is made by examination of the symptoms, along with blood and urine tests. The doctor may conduct testing on the heart to determine whether Kawasaki disease has progressed to the dangerous stage that causes heart damage. Treatment consists of high doses of gamma globulin administered intravenously. Aspirin is usually prescribed to avoid further potential heart complications.

Without treatment, Kawasaki disease can cause an inflammation of the blood vessels, called vasculitis. This adversely affects the blood supply to the heart, potentially causing more damage. Tissues of the heart and arteries can also become irritated and inflamed. Another potential complication of Kawasaki disease is arrhythmia. It is important for parents to be familiar with the symptoms of Kawasaki disease, as this potentially harmless disease can have disastrous complications when left untreated.

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