Kawasaki Disease

What is Kawasaki disease?

Kawasaki disease is an acute childhood illness that causes inflammation of the blood vessels in many areas of the body. If not treated early, it can cause damage to the coronary arteries, which supply the heart with oxygen.

With early treatment, most children begin to feel better in a few days, with a low likelihood of long-term heart issues. Most children are back to normal health in about six to eight weeks.

Kawasaki disease is the most common form of acquired heart disease in the United States and Japan. It is most common in children under age 5, although children of any age can develop it. Boys are 1.5 times more likely to develop the disease than girls.

There’s no definitive test for Kawasaki disease, and its symptoms often resemble those of other childhood diseases.

What are the symptoms of Kawasaki disease?

The symptoms of Kawasaki disease usually appear in phases, and can change or evolve over time.

Symptoms of classic Kawasaki disease include:

  • high fever
  • rash
  • redness or swelling of the hands, followed by peeling skin on the fingers or toes
  • bloodshot eyes (both eyes), without drainage
  • red, cracked lips
  • strawberry tongue (a red, swollen tongue)
  • enlarged lymph node in the neck

Some children with Kawasaki disease may also have the following associated symptoms:

What causes Kawasaki disease?

Despite decades of research, the causes of Kawasaki disease are still unknown. We suspect there could be multiple reasons that people develop this condition.

Because no bacteria or virus has been proven to cause Kawasaki disease, some experts believe that Kawasaki disease is an immune reaction that children may have to a variety of infectious agents. Genetic susceptibility may play a role.

Kawasaki disease occurs more often in Japan than in any other country. Children of Asian or Asian-American heritage have a higher risk of Kawasaki disease regardless of where they live — although Kawasaki disease can occur in any racial or ethnic group.

Is Kawasaki disease contagious?

The disease is not contagious (spread from person to person). Outbreaks have been reported in waves within geographical areas, and the disease tends to occur more frequently in winter and early spring.

How we care for Kawasaki disease

The experienced team members of the Boston Children’s Hospital Kawasaki Disease Program provide coordinated care for children with Kawasaki disease — during the illness’ acute phase and for short- and long-term follow up.

Each year, our program — staffed by expert cardiologists, rheumatologists, and a pediatric nurse practitioner — treats more than 65 patients who have confirmed or suspected Kawasaki disease. We follow more than 1,500 children and young adults who have had Kawasaki disease in our outpatient Heart Center.

The Kawasaki Disease Program serves as a national and international resource for parents and physicians. We provide families with a wealth of information and support — and we help pediatricians and other specialists to confirm and treat this hard-to-diagnose illness.