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What is Reye's Syndrome?

By Aniza Pourtauborde
Updated May 17, 2024
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Reye's syndrome was first identified as a distinct illness in 1963 by Australian pathologist R. Douglas Reye, M.D. This rare but potentially deadly disease afflicts primarily children between four to 16 years of age. A two-phased illness, Reye's syndrome appears during the recovery period following a viral infection such as influenza or chicken pox. In some cases, it can also occur three to five days after the patient is diagnosed with a viral illness.

When Reye's syndrome attacks the body, blood sugar levels drop, while ammonia and acidity rise in the body. This affects all organs, but is most lethal to the brain and liver. The onset of Reye's syndrome causes swelling due to increased pressure in the brain. In addition, the liver and other organs accumulate an abnormal amount of fatty deposits. Undiagnosed and untreated, this condition can cause sudden convulsions or seizures, leading to a coma and brain death within just a few days.

Symptoms. Symptoms of Reye's syndrome fall into two stages depending on the severity of the disease. Stage I includes preliminary symptoms that usually affect the physical health of the child. These symptoms include listlessness, loss of energy, persistent vomiting, continuous diarrhea, drowsiness and nausea. When these symptoms are ignored or mistaken for a recurrence of the earlier viral infection, the syndrome worsens.

Stage II symptoms have a grave impact on the child’s mental health. At this level of Reye's syndrome, the child will exhibit dramatic changes in personality by being highly irritable and aggressive. He or she may also become disoriented, resulting in confusion as well as irrational and combative behavior. As the condition develops, convulsions or seizures ensue, finally ending in a deep coma and inevitable death.

Due to the commonality of Stage I symptoms, Reye's syndrome is more often than not misdiagnosed as other diseases like meningitis, drug abuse, encephalitis, diabetes, poisoning, psychiatric illness and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Parents or physicians should suspect Reye's syndrome if the child begins to recover from the viral infection but suddenly becomes progressively worse. Early diagnosis is critical to minimize physical damage and prevent death.

Causes. There are no known causes of Reye's syndrome. However, scientists have discovered that aspirin or medications containing salicylate can increase the probability of its incidence. One study found that 90% of patients with this disease took aspirin before or during the viral illness. For this reason, parents are advised to consult a physician before treating their children with these medications.

Treatment. As there is no cure for Reye's syndrome, physicians focus instead on preventing severe damage to the brain by anticipating cardiac arrest and reducing brain swelling. Children may also be admitted into the pediatric intensive care unit for drug treatments like insulin to increase sugar metabolism, diuretics to help lose excess fluids through urination and hence reduce brain swelling, and corticosteroids to decrease brain inflammation. Additionally, physicians may use various intravenous fluids, such as glucose to augment blood sugar; sodium, potassium and chloride to correct blood chemistry values; and other basic solutions for controlling acidity. If a child has an advanced stage of Reye's syndrome, physicians may use a ventilator to help him or her breathe normally.

Reye's syndrome can be managed if caught early. Delayed diagnosis reduces the chance of successful recovery severely, resulting in death within a few days.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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