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Hospitals are seeing more children with a rare syndrome linked to COVID-19. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
  • Hospitals have seen a spike in cases of MIS-C, a rare pediatric condition related to COVID-19.
  • MIS-C can cause inflammation of vital organs, including the heart and lungs, and be deadly.
  • Symptoms of MIS-C include a persistent fever, rash, vomiting, diarrhea, bloodshot eyes, and abdominal pain.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

With less than 0.1 percent of all deaths from COVID-19 occurring in people under age 18, children have been significantly less affected by the pandemic than older adults.

But that doesn’t mean they’ve been spared. Exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19 puts kids at risk of a serious condition known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). The condition can cause problems in major organs and, in some cases, lead to death.

While the condition is rare, cases of MIS-C have spiked in recent months. And as states continue to roll back restrictions on schools and businesses, experts are concerned that more children could be put at risk of this potentially deadly condition as they wait for a COVID-19 vaccine.

MIS-C is a condition that causes severe inflammation in children’s organs, such as the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys, and gastrointestinal system. While doctors have yet to determine the specific cause of the syndrome, it’s known to occur in children who had the virus that causes COVID-19, or spent time around someone with the disease, sometime within the last few weeks.

“We think that a COVID-19 infection can set off this very excessive immune response that causes inflammation throughout the body that can affect multiple organs,” explained Dr. Christina Gagliardo, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Atlantic Health System in New Jersey.

MIS-C is not common, but when it occurs, it can be life threatening. At least 33 children have died from MIS-C, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data last updated on March 1.

“A child with severe MIS-C requiring them to be placed on a ventilator or ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), which is a machine that does the job of the heart and lungs, could be in the hospital for a week or more,” added Gagliardo.

Despite the severity of the condition, the vast majority of children with MIS-C ultimately recover. However, doctors worry that the condition, like COVID-19, may cause lasting damage to children’s health.

“We’re concerned about long-term cardiac impacts,” said Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, pediatrician, professor, and chief of the division of population health, quality, and implementation science at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “We don’t know what may be triggered by MIS-C that’s waiting to show itself at some point in the future, and that will take time to know.”

There have been at least 2,617 known cases of MIS-C between mid-May 2020 and March 1, 2021, per the CDC. Many of those cases occurred during a spike that began late last fall, and hospitals warn that they’re continuing to see higher numbers of children with MIS-C.

The exact reason for the surge in MIS-C remains unclear, but doctors suspect it may be linked to the spread of COVID-19 that occurred during holiday gatherings.

“Cases of MIS-C reflect the underlying number of COVID infections. With states going their own way, reopening foolishly, we saw a surge of COVID in the summer, and in the fall, we saw MIS-C. With Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings, we saw another surge,” said Kleinman.

Another theory is that repeated exposure to COVID-19 could trigger MIS-C.

“For example, if a child was exposed last spring, and again in the fall or winter, but we can’t say for sure right now,” said Gagliardo.

It’s important to note that MIS-C doesn’t affect children from all backgrounds equally. Around 2 in every 3 reported cases of MIS-C have occurred in children who are Hispanic/Latino or Black, according to the CDC.

“MIS-C is hugely prejudicial, in part because the virus [that causes COVID-19] has been hugely prejudicial, due to socioeconomic and racial-ethnic disparities,” said Kleinman.

Without addressing disparities in access to healthcare and vaccines, along with differences in families’ abilities to prevent the spread of the virus, MIS-C may continue to affect Hispanic/Latino and Black communities at disproportionate rates to their white counterparts.

Symptoms of MIS-C can look a lot like other illnesses, so it can be tough to know if your child is showing signs of the condition. Typically, it involves a fever that lasts for a few days.

Other symptoms of MIS-C include:

  • rash
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • soreness in the neck
  • red or bloodshot eyes
  • fatigue
  • abdominal pain

“Some children can also have swelling of the hands or feet, or enlarged lymph nodes in the neck,” added Gagliardo.

If your child has any of the symptoms of MIS-C, get in touch with your pediatrician or a healthcare facility for an evaluation.

The CDC says you should seek emergency care if your child is experiencing:

  • confusion
  • an inability to stay awake
  • chest pain
  • trouble breathing
  • extreme abdominal pain
  • paleness, or blue or gray skin, nail beds, or lips

MIS-C is a very rare condition, but it can be fatal, so it’s important to continue COVID-19 prevention strategies, like wearing masks, social distancing, and handwashing, said Kleinman.

“People look at percentages and say that COVID-19 is not a bad disease in kids, and that’s only true if you don’t get really sick or get MIS-C,” he said. “It’s a small proportion of children who get it, but the numbers are meaningful, and some people are devastated by it.”