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Reye Syndrome

What is Reye syndrome?

Reye syndrome is a rare but very serious disease that causes brain swelling and liver damage. It can also affect all of the body’s organs. This condition is most common in children and teens who are recovering from a viral infection. Reye syndrome usually affects children between ages 4 and 12, but it can occur at any age.

As the swelling in the brain increases, the pressure inside of the head may also increase. The increased pressure in the head causes neurological changes in the child.

Symptoms occur very suddenly. If diagnosed and treated early, many children recover fully. But if not treated quickly, Reye syndrome can cause a child to go into a coma, lead to brain damage, or cause death.

What causes Reye syndrome?

The exact cause of Reye syndrome is not known. But studies show a link between Reye syndrome and children who take aspirin during or after a viral illness. For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics has released warnings about the link between aspirin and Reye syndrome. Do not give aspirin to a child under 19 years or age, unless instructed by your child's healthcare provider.

What are the symptoms of Reye syndrome?

A child may have had a viral illness (such as a respiratory infection, chickenpox, flu, or diarrhea) before showing symptoms of Reye syndrome. Symptoms of Reye syndrome occur very quickly. Symptoms may vary, but may include:

  • Severe nausea and vomiting

  • Sleepiness or lethargy

  • Confusion

  • Anger or violent behavior

  • Increased irritability

  • Unresponsiveness

  • Seizures

  • Coma

If your child shows any of these symptoms during or right after a viral illness, get medical care right away. If your child’s healthcare provider is not available, take your child to the emergency room.

How is Reye syndrome diagnosed?

The diagnosis of Reye syndrome is made after certain symptoms suddenly appear, and after diagnostic testing. During a physical exam, your child's healthcare provider will take a complete medical history. The provider will ask if your child has recently had a cold or other viral illness, and if your child has taken aspirin or medicine that contains aspirin.

Diagnostic tests that may be done to confirm the diagnosis of Reye syndrome include the following:

  • Blood and liver function tests

  • Urine and stool tests

  • Liver biopsy. A small sample of tissue is removed from the liver and studied to help diagnose different illnesses.

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG). This test records the brain's constant electrical activity, using electrodes placed on the scalp.

  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). A special needle is placed into the lower back, into the spinal canal. This is the area around the spinal cord. The pressure in the spinal canal and brain can then be measured. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for testing to see if there is an infection or other problems. CSF is the fluid that bathes your child's brain and spinal cord.

  • Intracranial pressure monitoring (ICP). Measures the pressure inside of the child's head.

  • MRI. A diagnostic test that uses a combination of a large magnet, radiofrequencies, and a computer to make detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

How is Reye syndrome treated?

Your child’s healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment based on:

  • How old your child is

  • Your child’s overall health and medical history

  • How sick your child is

  • How well your child can handle certain medicines, treatments, or therapies

  • If your child’s condition is expected to get worse

  • The opinion of the healthcare providers involved in your child's care

  • Your opinion or preference

There is no cure for Reye syndrome. But there are some treatment options. The key to medically managing the disease is to diagnose it early.

A child with Reye syndrome requires immediate hospitalization in the intensive care unit and close monitoring by the healthcare team. This is a serious illness that can quickly get worse.

The goal of treatment is to monitor and reduce the pressure in the head and to treat symptoms.  Medicines are used to control the swelling in the brain, seizures, fever, or other conditions that may be present.

The extent of the problem depends on the severity of your child’s condition. It also depends on other organ system problems that could affect your child. In severe cases, a child may need to use a breathing machine (ventilator).

What can I do to prevent Reye syndrome?

Read medicine labels carefully. Do not give aspirin to a child under 19 years or age, unless instructed by your child's healthcare provider.

Ask your child’s healthcare provider any questions you have about medicines and dosage.