What Is Reye’s Syndrome?

Reye’s syndrome is a rare but severe disease that causes swelling in the brain and liver. It can affect people of any age, but it is most often seen in children recuperating from a virus such as chickenpox or the flu.

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According to studies, the main risk factor for Reye’s syndrome is taking aspirin or salicylates. Doctors recommend that children and teenagers recuperating from viral infections should avoid taking aspirin because of fear of developing Reye’s syndrome.

What Causes Reye’s Syndrome?

Doctors suggests that some people are prone to get it when they take aspirin for a virus. Others have a greater chance of getting it if they:

  • Have a illness that affects how their bodies break down fatty acids
  • Have been exposed to certain toxins

Cells all over the body become swollen and build up fats when Reye’s syndrome develops. This causes your blood sugar levels to drop, while Ammonia and acid levels in the blood rise. These changes can affect many organs, such as the liver and brain, where severe swelling can occur.

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Symptoms of Reye’s Syndrome

The signs of Reye’s typically appear 3 to 5 days after the start of a viral infection. Early symptoms may include diarrhea and rapid breathing in children younger than age 2. Early symptoms in older children and teenagers, may include constant vomiting and unusual sleepiness

As the syndrome progresses, symptoms can become more severe, and may include:

  • Hallucination
  • Severe weakness
  • Seizure or convulsions
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Personality changes (more irritable or aggressive)

Reye’s can be deadly. You should call 911 if you see these severe symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment is vital. Reye’s syndrome can be mistaken for other conditions such as meningitis, poisoning or diabetes reaction.

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Doctors have gotten better at diagnosing Reye’s syndrome quickly and early, thereby reducing the death rate from around 50% to less than 20%. This means most children and teenagers who get the syndrome survive and recover completely.

Doctors don’t have a specific test for Reye’s. They usually perform blood and urine tests. They also screen for disorders involving fatty acids.

Other tests may include:

  • Spinal taps (a needle is inserted into a space below the end of the spinal cord to collect fluid)
  • Liver biopsies, where a needle is pushed through the abdomen into the liver to get a sample of tissue
  • Skin biopsies, where a doctor scrapes a small skin sample to test
  • CT or MRI scans 

Treating Reye’s Syndrome

There’s no single treatment that will stop Reye’s syndrome, but doctors can help to manage the condition. These steps include:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids
  • Diuretics to help your body get rid of salt and water (and stop swelling)
  • Medications to prevent bleeding
  • Vitamin K, plasma, and platelets (tiny blood cells that help form clots) in cases of liver bleeding

Are there long-term effects?

The recovery of a person from Reye’s syndrome and the chances for long-term brain damage, depend a lot on how much the brain swells. Cases that quickly deteriorate and lead to coma are more likely to cause more brain damage.


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