- COVID-19 has been linked to a rare illness that has hospitalized nearly 100 children in the U.S.
- It’s called pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome, and it has symptoms similar to Kawasaki disease and toxic shock syndrome.
- Doctors explain how it may be linked to coronavirus, the symptoms to have on your radar, and when a child should see a doctor.
Despite the chaos that COVID-19 has caused in everyday life, it’s easy to forget that the respiratory illness is caused by a novel coronavirus, meaning there are still new things experts are learning about it all the time. The latest: COVID-19 has been linked to a rare illness that has hospitalized nearly 100 children in the U.S.
It’s called pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome, and health officials think it’s caused by COVID-19. Details about this syndrome are continuing to emerge but, as of now, at least 85 children in New York state are being investigated for the syndrome, according to a press release issued by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. The state is also notifying other states of this syndrome, the release says. To date, at least three children in New York have died from the complication and “an additional two deaths are currently under investigation.”
This isn’t the first discovery of pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome linked to COVID-19—a small number of children in the U.K. have also developed it, according to the country’s Paediatric Intensive Care Society (PICS). Here, doctors break down what you need to know about the syndrome and its link to COVID-19.
What is pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome?
It seems to be a complication of COVID-19 that can show up in children who have been infected with the virus. (Worth noting, though: PICS says some cases involve children who have not tested positive for COVID-19). The condition causes symptoms that are similar to Kawasaki disease and toxic shock syndrome.
Kawasaki disease or Kawasaki syndrome is a rare childhood condition that typically impacts children under the age of five, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disease causes inflammation in the walls of the arteries and can decrease blood flow to the heart. Symptoms include a high fever, rash, swollen glands in the neck, swollen hands and feet, cracked lips, and red eyes.
Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a serious and sometimes fatal condition that is caused by a toxin created by some types of staphylococcus bacteria, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Symptoms of TSS include confusion, diarrhea, headaches, high fever, low blood pressure, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, red eyes, seizures, and organ failure.
Pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome doesn’t actually cause these conditions, but they all seem to have some overlap in symptoms, says Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Researchers “are still trying to understand this syndrome,” he says.
What is the link between pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome and COVID-19?
For the record, pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome hasn’t been definitively linked with COVID-19. “The general thought is that most of these cases that have been reported so far were a consequence of a COVID-19 infection,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “It hasn’t been nailed down yet, but that’s the leading hypothesis.”
As of now, it seems like the syndrome is one of several conditions that can happen after someone has an infection, Dr. Schaffner says. “Guillain-Barré syndrome can follow influenza, and after shigella infections, you can have an immune arthritis complex that can follow,” he says. “There’s a whole collection of these inflammatory-immunological consequences that can occur. Pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome fits into that whole grab bag of syndromes that can be precipitated by an acute infection.”
Still, he adds that “the actual mechanism of how and why that happens, and to whom remains a mystery.”
What are the symptoms of pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome?
Many children who have been affected do not display the more common symptoms of COVID-19, and were generally seen as healthy prior to developing the illness. The symptoms vary depending on which organ system is affected, according to the New York Department of Public Health but, in general, these seem to be the main signs of pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome:
- Skin rash
- Unusual abdominal pain
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Pink or red eyes
- Swollen hands or feet
- Enlarged lymph nodes on the neck
- Respiratory symptoms like a cough or trouble breathing
Some children have needed blood pressure support and several have required mechanical ventilation, the New York Department of Public Health says.
How does pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome become fatal?
As of now, the syndrome seems to be mimicking Kawasaki disease in that it can cause problems with the heart and the blood vessels leading to the heart, Dr. Adalja says. That can cause a heart attack—yes, in children—and be fatal in some cases, he says. However, Dr. Adalja emphasizes that “this is not usually fatal.”
When should you take your child to the doctor?
Again, the symptoms of pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome are varied right now, but if your child develops a rash, red eyes, a high fever, or abdominal pain, Dr. Schaffner says you should see your child’s pediatrician immediately. And, if you’re not sure, call anyway—your child’s doctor should be able to guide you from there.
While reports of the syndrome are freaky, Dr. Adalja says that parents shouldn’t panic. “It is rare and it’s not the norm,” he says. “Children as a whole still do very well with the coronavirus.”
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