Reye's Syndrome

Cases of Reye’s syndrome — a rare, but potentially fatal disease — have dropped significantly in recent years because parents are more aware of the link between aspirin use, viral infections and Reye’s.

Improved identification of other rare metabolic disorders has also eliminated what may have been situations of Reye’s syndrome being mistakenly diagnosed.

This puzzling disease kills as many as 20 to 30 percent of its victims. Another 1/3 of survivors suffer permanent brain damage.

Especially during flu and chickenpox season, parents should be aware of the possibility of Reye’s and be alert for its early warning symptoms.

The cause of Reye’s syndrome is unknown. It appears in kids who have recently had a viral illness such as flu, chickenpox, a bad cold or mononucleosis.

There is a clear link with aspirin use during these viral infections and the risk of Reye’s syndrome.

Reye’s syndrome is most common from November through March. Most Reye’s victims are between the ages of 10 and 14, although it has claimed lives among younger children and older teens, even young adults.

Reye’s attacks the brain and the liver. Swelling in the brain can cut off the blood supply, leading to irreversible brain damage. The swelling also can interfere with breathing, to the point of respiratory failure and death.

In the liver, Reye’s affects certain cells to the point that the liver can’t clean up ammonia in the blood.  However, experts are more concerned about the possibility of brain damage, since most victims recover completely from liver damage.

Call your child’s doctor immediately if she develops any of these symptoms after the flu, chickenpox or other viral illness:

•    Persistent or continuous vomiting

•    Listlessness

•    Loss of pep and energy

•    Drowsiness

•    Personality changes; irritability

•    Aggressive behavior

•    Confusion, irrational behavior

•    Delirium, convulsions

Symptoms often come on fast, within a half-day. There usually is no fever.

There is no way to treat Reye’s at home. Untreated, a child may lapse into a coma within 24 hours.

The child probably will require immediate hospitalization for 3 to 10 days, most likely in the intensive care unit.

Although the exact cause of Reye’s syndrome remains a mystery, the link between viral infections and aspirin use is clear. Because you may not know if your child has a viral infection, never give aspirin to him unless specifically directed by your child’s doctor.

Make sure your teen-aged and young-adult children understand this, too; they make up an increasing number of Reye’s victims, because they can take aspirin on their own. Use acetaminophen (such as Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (such as Motrin®) for pain and fever.

Consider not keeping aspirin in the home unless someone has been directed to take it by her doctor. Children who take aspirin for medical reasons should get a flu vaccine every year.

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