Reye Syndrome

Reye syndrome is a rare but serious disease that most often affects children 6 to 12 years old. It seems to be related to the use of ASA (Aspirin) to treat some viral illnesses, such as chicken pox.

Reye syndrome primarily targets the brain and liver. Brain swelling and chemical changes in the blood from liver damage affect the entire body. Drowsiness, confusion, seizures, coma, and, in severe cases, death may result.

The cause of Reye syndrome is unknown. But the disease most often occurs in children who have recently had chicken pox (varicella) or flu (influenza) and who have also taken medicines that contain ASA. Reye syndrome is not contagious.

The most important step you can take to prevent Reye syndrome is to avoid giving ASA or products that contain ASA to anyone younger than 20 unless a doctor has specifically prescribed it.

Often symptoms of Reye syndrome appear during recovery from a viral infection, such as the flu or chicken pox, that has been treated with ASA products. Symptoms usually develop 3 to 7 days after a viral illness starts. The symptoms develop rapidly over several hours to a day or two.

The first symptoms may include:

  • Sudden onset of retching or vomiting that is not clearly due to stomach flu.
  • Strange behaviour, such as staring, irritability, personality change, and slurred speech.
  • Sluggishness, lack of energy, and loss of interest in surroundings.
  • Drowsiness that may lead to severe sleepiness.

As brain damage progresses, other symptoms may develop, including:

  • Confusion and inability to identify whereabouts or family members or to answer simple questions.
  • Aggressive behaviour, such as hitting others without reason.
  • Hyperventilation.
  • Seizures and abnormal body positioning, and coma.

If Reye syndrome is not recognized and treated promptly, death can occur.

Reye syndrome has become very rare since widespread campaigns publicized the dangers of giving ASA to young people. Because it is so rare, all other possible causes of brain and liver problems must be eliminated before Reye syndrome is diagnosed.

If your child has symptoms of Reye syndrome, get medical care immediately. Early treatment increases the chance for full recovery. If the disease is diagnosed early, most children recover from Reye syndrome in a few weeks. But some children develop permanent brain damage. The goal of treatment is to stop damage to the brain and liver and to prevent complications. All children with Reye syndrome are treated in a hospital intensive care unit.