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Some coronavirus-exposed children show signs of Kawasaki disease

child wearing a mask with kawasaki disease

A mysterious illness with symptoms including red eyes and similarities to Kawasaki disease has struck dozens of children around the world and seems to be related to COVID-19 disease.

The mysterious illness, known as pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, can trigger potentially fatal cardiac problems

Symptoms of mysterious children’s illness

Symptoms of pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome can include redness of the eyes, fever, rash, swollen lymph nodes and sharp abdominal pain, according to The New York Times.

With cases of this pediatric inflammatory syndrome, redness of the eyes might be caused by conjunctivitis, otherwise known as pink eye. 

What is Kawasaki disease?

Kawasaki disease, sometimes known as Kawasaki syndrome, is a rare inflammatory condition affecting children’s blood vessels

Symptoms of Kawasaki disease can include irritation and redness of the eyes, fever, rash, swelling of the hands and feet, swollen lymph glands, and irritation and inflammation of the mouth, lips and throat, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. 

The most prominent symptom of Kawasaki disease frequently is a 101-degree to 104-degree fever that lasts four or five days.

Kawasaki disease, which doesn’t have a known cause, affects about 7,000 children in the United States each year. As long as treatment isn’t delayed, most children recover from the disease within a few days. But if left untreated, the disease can create serious health problems.

The Texas Heart Institute explains that Kawasaki disease leads to swelling, or inflammation, of the body’s tissues and can cause inflammation of the heart and coronary arteries. This inflammation can lead to heart problems such as aneurysms and blood clots or even a heart attack.

For most children diagnosed with Kawasaki disease, the heart issues go away after five or six weeks, without any long-term damage, the institute says. Fewer than 1% of children die from complications of the disease.

WORRIED ABOUT YOUR CHILD’S RED EYES: Find an eye doctor near you and schedule a virtual visit or in-office eye exam.

Children’s illness also similar to toxic shock syndrome

Pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome also has similarities to toxic shock syndrome, a bacterial disorder. 

Toxic shock syndrome is a rare, life-threatening complication of certain bacterial infections, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some of the symptoms are redness of the eyes, mouth and throat; high fever; low blood pressure; vomiting or diarrhea; and rash. The death rate for toxic shock syndrome is less than 5%.

It’s unclear how the novel coronavirus might be connected to Kawasaki disease or toxic shock syndrome.

‘If your kid is sick, call your doctor’

For parents who might be worried about pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, Dr. Marco Zarbin gives this advice: Don’t jump to conclusions, and don’t come up with your own diagnosis.

“Don’t try to play doctor. If your kid is sick, call your doctor. Let the doctor guide you on what steps to take,” says Zarbin, chair of the Institute of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

Zarbin says that based solely on redness of the eyes, a parent shouldn’t conclude that their child is infected by the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19 disease, or has any other illness.

“It’s not like playing a game of bingo where somebody calls a number and if you got that number, you win. Very rarely does medicine work that way,” he says.

“It’s more like people have certain symptoms that could be signs of several different diseases. You look for the most likely disease it’s going to be, given the spectrum of signs and symptoms that they’re presenting with,” Zarbin adds. “That’s how you figure out what you think the most likely diagnosis is.”

Zarbin says pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome is showing up in children about six weeks after they’ve been exposed to the novel coronavirus, and the syndrome might result from a coronavirus infection. Children who contract the coronavirus typically display mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. 

Red eyes are a symptom for many illnesses

Redness of the eyes isn’t always among the symptoms of the pediatric inflammation syndrome, Zarbin notes. And if redness of the eyes does occur, it will accompany other symptoms of the syndrome and actually might be one of the signs of an entirely different illness.

“If a child has a red eye, I’d probably call the pediatrician first and then let the doctor guide me through a series of questions to figure out if there is anything else I need to worry about,” Zarbin says. 

“The parent’s job is to know when to pick up the phone. It’s not to know what’s wrong. They’re unlikely to be able to come to some conclusion about that,” he says. “But parents are very good at knowing when something is wrong.”

IF YOU ARE WORRIED ABOUT YOUR CHILD’S EYES: Find an eye doctor near you and schedule a virtual visit or in-office exam. If you are worried about your child’s overall health contact your family doctor immediately.

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