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What Is Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children?

Natan Rosenfeld Natan Rosenfeld
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, scientists have slowly discovered that COVID-19 isn’t just a respiratory disease. We now know the virus can damage the heart, the liver, and even the kidneys. Whether this damage is temporary or long-term remains to be seen.


Fortunately, children appear to have been spared serious illness. The vast majority of kids brush off COVID as nothing more than a cold. But the coronavirus can be a cruel disease. Some youngsters, seemingly at random, experience a rare but severe side effect called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).


What is MIS-C?


So what exactly is MIS-C? At some point in the last year, children who contracted COVID-19 started developing severe, widespread inflammation over the course of their illness. This inflammation was found to attack major organs in the body, including the heart, the lungs, the blood vessels, the kidneys, or even the brain, with symptoms varying depending on the affected body part. Doctors witnessing this debilitating phenomenon in young patients dubbed it “multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children” or “MIS-C.” To date, at least 2,617 cases of MIS-C have occurred in the United States.


Most affected children will recover from MIS-C. But some won’t. Thirty-three have already died, and as cases rise, deaths likely will too.


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COVID-19 - Mutations

COVID-19 - Mutations

What causes MIS-C, and who’s at risk?


Experts aren’t sure what causes MIS-C, but they know it’s related to an abnormal immune response.


Certain risk factors have been identified for MIS-C, however. Data shows that more black and Latino children are diagnosed with the condition than kids of any other racial background. Furthermore, MIS-C is diagnosed most frequently in children between the ages of 3 and 12 years old. 


Symptoms of MIS-C


Symptoms of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children can include:


  • Fever lasting more than 24 hours
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat or rapid breathing
  • Red eyes
  • Red rash on skin
  • Stomach pain
  • Fatigue
  • Headache or dizziness
  • Swelling or redness of the lips, tongue, hands or feet


The following symptoms should prompt you to contact emergency services:


  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pale or gray-colored skin
  • Severe stomach or chest pain
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake up or stay awake


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COVID-19 - Testing

COVID-19 - Testing

Treating MIS-C


As MIS-C is a severe illness, affected children need to be treated in a hospital. Treatments depend on the severity of the disease, but typically include oxygen, fluids, medications to stabilize blood pressure and reduce risk of blood clots, and/or ventilator support.  There are no specific treatments to target the disease itself, as it’s not known what causes this extreme reaction to COVID-19.


Preventing MIS-C


The cause of MIS-C isn’t known, and it’s not known why some children recover and some suffer serious illness. Therefore, preventing it is impossible unless you take precautions to avoid COVID-19 infection itself, such as wearing a face mask, social distancing, and washing hands often. 


MIS-C is yet another rare but crippling complication of the coronavirus. As scientists continue working around the clock to understand COVID and its side effects, it’s likely that the mysteries of MIS-C, too, will be uncovered.

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