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Home > Your Liver > Liver Disease Information > Reye Syndrome

Reye Syndrome

Explore this section to learn more about Reye syndrome, including a description of the disease and how it's diagnosed.

What is Reye syndrome?

Reye syndrome is a rare illness that affects all bodily organs but is most harmful to the brain and the liver. It occurs primarily among children who are recovering from a viral infection, such as chicken pox or the flu. It usually develops a week after the onset of the viral illness but can also occur a few days after onset. Liver-related complications of Reye syndrome include fatty deposits, abnormal liver function tests, and poor blood clotting and bleeding caused by liver failure.

What are the symptoms of Reye syndrome?

Reye syndrome is often misdiagnosed as encephalitis, meningitis, diabetes, drug overdose, poisoning, sudden infant death syndrome, or psychiatric illness.

Symptoms include persistent or recurrent vomiting, listlessness, personality changes such as irritability or combativeness, disorientation, delirium, convulsions, and loss of consciousness. If these symptoms are present during or soon after a viral illness, medical attention should be sought immediately. The symptoms of Reye syndrome in infants do not follow a typical pattern; for example, vomiting does not always occur. The onset of Reye syndrome can be rapid, and signs and symptoms may worsen within hours.

What causes Reye syndrome?

The cause of Reye syndrome remains a mystery. However studies have shown that using aspirin to treat viral illnesses increases the risk of developing Reye syndrome. A physician should be consulted before giving a child any aspirin or anti-nausea medicines during a viral illness, which could hide the symptoms of the condition.

How is Reye syndrome diagnosed?

If your child becomes sick with a possible case of Reye syndrome, doctors will want blood tests to evaluate his or her liver function. They may also evaluate other possible causes of liver problems and make sure your child does not have one of the rare inherited disorders that mimic Reye syndrome. In addition to blood and urine tests, diagnostic procedures may include spinal taps or liver biopsy.

How is Reye syndrome treated?

There is no cure for Reye syndrome. Successful management, which relies on early diagnosis, is aimed primarily at protecting the brain from irreversible damage by reducing brain swelling, preventing complications in the lungs, and anticipating cardiac arrest.

If my child has been diagnosed with Reye syndrome, what should I ask our doctor?

Speak to your doctor about possible long-term complications connected with Reye syndrome. Though rare, Reye syndrome can result in permanent liver or nervous system damage.

Who is at risk for Reye syndrome?

Reye syndrome occurs most commonly in children between the ages of 4 and 12, although it can occur at any age. It usually develops about a week after common viral infections such as influenza or chickenpox. Reye syndrome can also develop after an ordinary upper respiratory infection such as a cold. The precise reason is unknown, but using aspirin to treat a viral illness or infection may trigger the condition in children.

Reye syndrome may be a metabolic condition — one without symptoms (asymptomatic) — that is unmasked by viral illnesses.

What is the best way to prevent Reye syndrome?

To reduce the risk of Reye syndrome, avoid giving aspirin or medications that contain aspirin to your child to treat viral illnesses. Other names for aspirin include: acetylsalicylic acid, acetylsalicylate, salicylic acid, and salicylate. Unless specifically instructed to do so by your child's doctor, do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 19.

If your child or teenager has the flu or chickenpox, use other medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium to reduce fever or relieve pain. Check the label on any medication to make sure it does not include aspirin before giving it your child, and be sure to give the correct dose.

Page updated: October 4th, 2011