What is Kawasaki disease? Should I worry about my child?

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Whenever there is a public tragedy such as the death John Travolta and Kelly Preston’s son, Jet, we are all sad, and some of us worry how it might relate to us. At least, I do.  It is a realty check. Don’t we all, sometimes, fear the worst for our children or is it just me?

We don’t know the cause of his death yet, but we do know that both parents have talked about their son getting Kawasaki disease when a child.  So, for now, if our own child gets sick we think, could it be Kawasaki Disease?  What if I, or the doctor miss the diagnosis?  How serious a threat is it to my family?

Knowledge and perspective may help a little.
photo CDC.strawberry tongue

Kawasaki disease inflames the lining of the heart and arteries.  The cause is unknown but thought to be related to a virus, bacteria or environmental chemical or pollutant (pretty broad spectrum there).  You can’t do anything to prevent it, at present.  It usually affects children under 5 years old.  There is no specific test for diagnosis, but is suspected if a fever lasts over 5 days (sometimes higher than 104) and the child has 4 of the following:

  • Rash
  • Swollen, red (strawberry) tongue
  • Red, irritated looking conjunctiva (the white part of the eyes)
  • Swollen, red soles of feet or palms of hands
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

You may recognize that your child has had these problems, probably more than once, but Kawasaki disease hits only 9-19 children per 100,000.  If my math is correct that is less than 1 child out of 500.  So keep it in perspective.  Don’t panic, just take proper action and see your doctor.

More facts:

  1. It is treatable.  Kawasaki disease seriously damages the heart and arteries in about 25 percent of children if untreated, and 2-4 percent of those treated.
  2. The fever, rash, sore throat, etc. are much more likely to be some sort of viral illness, scarlet fever (strep throat with a rash) or a reaction to a medicine (Stevens-Johnson syndrome).  It might even be measles, but this has become less common that Kawasaki disease.

Bottom line: Kawasaki disease is uncommon.  Death occurs, but is rare.  If Jet died of it at his age, it would be extremely rare.  On the other hand, one of the first things I learned in medical school was rare diseases and events are not rare for the ones who experience it.  If my child had the above symptoms and a high fever for more than 5 days, without a clear diagnosis, I would ask about further testing such as an echocardiogram.  Early treatment is key.

My heart goes out to the Travolta family.

As usual, my writing is for information only.  If your child has some of the above symptoms follow your doctor’s advice.

Has anyone had experience with this disease or other like-scares?

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6 Responses to “What is Kawasaki disease? Should I worry about my child?”

  1. Dr. J Says:

    Thanks for the information, Dr. Hubbard! Like you, I was saddened by the Travoltas loss.

    Dr. Js last blog post..Nibbles for kids: Not enough obesity diagnoses, gastric bypass and diabetes and another danger of skipping breakfast

  2. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Dr. J

  3. James Hubbard’s My Family Doctor Blog » Blog Archive » Death of a child. What we can learn from the Travolta family tragedy? Says:

    [...] HomeMedical TopicsAsk the Doctor!Meet the ExpertsRecipesDiscussionsBlogVideos Home » Blogs « What is Kawasaki disease? Should I worry about my child? [...]

  4. Dr. J Says:

    As an aside, what do you feel about the comments of Jett having “untreated” autism rather than having a problem with Kawasaki disease?

    Dr. Js last blog post..Nibbles for kids: Not enough obesity diagnoses, gastric bypass and diabetes and another danger of skipping breakfast

  5. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    It is pure speculation, but it would be very rare and unusual if Kawaski disease played a role in his death at all after all of these years. Apparently he died after a seizure and KD usually affects heart and arteries. Autism would be a more likely reason for seizures but, as you know, there are many reasons for seizures, and many degrees of autism. We will never know about the autism unless the family decides to say.

    The question of untreated comes into play about the seizures. Since medication prevents the majority, were they being treated? I do not know.

    thanks for the insightful question.

  6. Brit-Kaas Says:

    Great idea, but will this work over the long run?

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