Reye’s Syndrome: What To Look For, What To Do

Teenagers, particularly those with certain inherited conditions affecting metabolism, recovering from viral infections sometimes experience swelling in the liver—and the brain. The cause is a rare but serious, and sometimes fatal, condition called Reye’s syndrome. It’s not just teenagers—it can occur at any age—but it is particularly common in that age group.

The exact cause is unknown. Reye’s almost always develops within the first week after a viral infection such as chicken pox or flu, though patients should be monitored for three weeks after their illness. It generally strikes young people who were treated with aspirin, though the connection is unclear. Some insecticides and herbicides, as well as other toxins, can also trigger it. People with conditions called fatty acid oxidation disorders are especially prone to the disease.

Early diagnosis is vital, because the condition affects the brain and treatment is significantly more effective if it’s started early. Reye’s syndrome generally progresses in a specific sequence, and the symptoms usually occur in the same order:

  1. Continuous vomiting
  2. Listlessness
  3. Drowsiness
  4. Personality changes such as irritability, or slurred speech or touch sensitivity
  5. Disorientation or confusion
  6. Combativeness
  7. Delirium, convulsions, or loss of consciousness

Someone exhibiting relentless vomiting, particularly with listlessness, should get immediate medical attention from a professional who is trained in diagnosing and treating Reye’s syndrome. With proper treatment, given early, Reye’s has a 90 percent recovery rate.

Administration of aspirin—also called acetylsalicylate, acetylsalicylic acid, salicylic acid, and salicylate—is the single biggest predictor of Reye’s syndrome. Medications containing aspirin should not be given to children with viral infections. However, you should ask your doctor before giving an infected child anything, to be sure it won’t mask the symptoms of Reye’s until it’s too late.

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