What is Reye syndrome?
Reye syndrome is a rare but serious disease that most often affects children ages 6 to 12 years old. It can cause brain swelling and liver damage. It may be related to using aspirin to treat viral infections.
Reye syndrome can lead to brain damage, liver damage, and death. But if the disease is found and treated early, most children recover from Reye syndrome in a few weeks and have no lasting problems.
What causes Reye syndrome?
Experts don’t know what causes Reye syndrome. It often happens in children who have recently had chickenpox or the flu and who took medicines that contain aspirin.
Reye syndrome cannot spread from child to child.
What are the symptoms?
Reye syndrome often starts when a child is recovering from a viral illness, such as the flu or chickenpox. Symptoms usually appear 3 to 7 days after the viral illness starts. They may develop over several hours to a day or two.
The first symptoms may include:
- Sudden retching or vomiting.
- Lack of energy and loss of interest in things.
- Strange behavior, such as staring, irritability, personality changes, and slurred speech.
As liver damage and brain damage get worse, other symptoms may develop, including:
- Confusion. Your child may not know where he or she is, recognize family or friends, or be able to answer simple questions.
- Fast, deep breathing (hyperventilation).
- Violent behavior, such as hitting others without reason.
- Seizures and coma.
If Reye syndrome is not treated quickly, it can cause death.
If your child has symptoms of Reye syndrome, get medical care right away, even if your child has not had a recent viral illness or taken aspirin. Early treatment makes full recovery more likely.
How is Reye syndrome diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions about your child’s symptoms, recent aspirin use, and past health problems.
Your child may need tests such as blood and urine tests, a liver biopsy, a CT scan of the head, and a lumbar puncture (spinal tap).
How is it treated?
Reye syndrome is always treated in a hospital, often in the intensive care unit (ICU). The goal is to stop damage to the brain and liver and to prevent other problems. While in the hospital, your child will receive medicines to reduce brain swelling and will get other supportive care.
Reye syndrome can be scary for you and your child. Remember that most children recover with no problems. To help yourself and your child feel better:
- Talk with your doctor and the hospital staff about any questions or concerns you have about your child’s care.
- Stay with your child, or visit often if you are not allowed to stay with your child in the ICU.
- Let your child have some favorite toys or belongings while in the hospital. This will help your child feel more secure.
Can Reye syndrome be prevented?
The most important step you can take to prevent Reye syndrome is to not give aspirin or any product that contains aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless a doctor has prescribed it.
Always read the label before giving medicine to your child. Aspirin is found in many over-the-counter medicines, including ones you might not expect it to be in, such as Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate, and Alka-Seltzer. Aspirin is also called:
- Acetyl salicylate.
- Acetylsalicylic acid.
- Salicylic acid.
- Salicylate or subsalicylate.
Some childhood health problems may require treatment with aspirin. In these cases, make sure you have clear guidance from your doctor about giving aspirin to your child. If your child is taking aspirin and gets chickenpox or the flu, call your doctor right away.
Other Works Consulted
- Brown LW (2006). Reye syndrome. In FD Burg et al., eds., Current Pediatric Therapy, 18th ed., pp. 417–420. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
- Hurwitz ES (2009). Reye syndrome. In RD Feigin et al., eds., Feigin and Cherry’s Textbook of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 6th ed., vol. 1, pp. 693–694. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
Current as of: December 12, 2018
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:John Pope, MD, MPH – Pediatrics & Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine