Heart Disease in Children

Heart disease is generally a problem of adulthood, but children can be struck as well. In addition, in some cases doctors can know when a child has a significantly elevated risk of serious heart problems later in life. Often this is linked to an autoimmune condition called Kawasaki disease, the leading cause of heart disease in children. Around 5,000 children, mostly boys under five, are diagnosed with Kawasaki disease each year in the United States.

The condition is characterized by inflammation in the arterial walls. Initial symptoms are a sudden, persistent fever, red and swollen hands and feet, red eyes, and body rash. Other symptoms include a white coating or prominent red bumps on the tongue and swollen lymph nodes. More rare are irritability, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. These symptoms are the primary way the disease is diagnosed, since there’s no test for Kawasaki disease specifically. Blood and urine tests can show some of the effects of the disease.

Children diagnosed with Kawasaki disease need to be hospitalized immediately. Treatment is usually with high doses of intravenous immune proteins, called gamma globulins, along with aspirin. If treatment is started right away, recovery is very nearly certain, though about one in four children develop coronary artery problems. Patients are often kept on low-dose aspirin for about two months after being released from the hospital.

After recovery, patients should have an electrocardiogram every year or two as a precaution, in case heart problems develop. A study published in this month’s issue of Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology links Kawasaki disease to early-onset atherosclerosis, a precursor to heart disease. People who had Kawasaki disease as children need to be particularly careful about heart health. They especially should avoid smoking, eat a balanced diet low in saturated fats, and get plenty of exercise.

If your child is showing symptoms of Kawasaki disease, it is important to see the doctor immediately. Treatment needs to be started quickly to avoid heart disease and help the patient live a long and healthy life.

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