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Reye's Syndrome

What is Reye's syndrome?

Reye's syndrome is a rare illness that can be life-threatening. It usually happens after a child has an infection caused by a virus, such as a cold, influenza, or chickenpox. Reye's syndrome is seen most often in children less than15 years old.

The illness causes:

  • low blood sugar
  • high levels of acid and ammonia in the blood
  • swelling of the brain
  • damage to the liver, which means the liver may not work well

Reye's syndrome may last for weeks or months, depending on how severe it is. If the disease is severe, your child may have some brain damage. Reye's syndrome may cause death.

What is the cause?

Doctors don’t know the exact cause of Reye's syndrome. In almost all cases it happens after a child takes aspirin to treat a fever caused by a virus. Children with certain inherited (genetic) problems may have a higher risk for Reye's syndrome. For example, children who have an inherited problem getting rid of the ammonia in their blood from the breakdown of food may be more at risk.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms usually start 3 to 5 days after the start of a viral infection. They may include:

  • a gradual decrease in awareness and increased confusion as the brain gets more swollen
  • fever
  • nausea and vomiting for 1 to 3 days
  • seizures

If your child has these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider right away. Get emergency help if your child loses consciousness, is having seizures, or is very confused.

How is it diagnosed?

Your provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and examine your child. Tests may include:

  • blood tests
  • a test of spinal fluid (a small needle will be inserted in your child’s lower back to remove fluid for testing)
  • liver biopsy (a very small piece of your child's liver will be removed with a needle)

How is it treated?

Early diagnosis is the key to successful treatment. Children with Reye's syndrome must be treated right away at a hospital. While in the hospital, the child’s breathing will be supported as needed with oxygen and possibly a mechanical ventilator. Medicines will also be given through an IV to reduce brain swelling.

The liver does a lot of important things for the body. Your child will have blood tests to see how well the liver is working. If it isn’t working well, your child may need extra fluid, sugar, and blood products

If your child has seizures, medicine will be given to control them.

How can I help prevent Reye’s syndrome?

The best way to lower the risk of Reye's syndrome is to never give aspirin or any products containing salicylate to a child or teen unless your healthcare provider says it’s OK. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto-Bismol. You can give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief or fever. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and give as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, your child should not take this medicine for more than 10 days for any reason.

If your child is taking aspirin every day to treat a disease other than a virus, he should get the flu vaccine as a shot instead of the nasal spray. (The nasal spray contains live virus, which increases the risk of getting Reye’s.) Also, talk to your child’s provider if your child takes aspirin and has just received a chickenpox shot. Aspirin should not be taken for 6 weeks after chickenpox vaccination unless directed by the provider.

Developed by Robert Brayden, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Pediatric Advisor 2012.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-02-01
Last reviewed: 2011-11-14
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2012 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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