Reye's syndrome

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at October 22, 2016
StartReye's syndrome

Reye's syndrome is an extremely serious condition that generally affects young children and teenagers. It strikes individuals after bouts with viral infections, such as something as routine as the chickenpox or the flu that affects thousands of young people every year. For those who develop Reye's syndrome, an alarming swelling occurs that affects vital organs, including the brain and the liver. If not treated immediately, it can lead to death. Prompt attention is vital.


Definition & Facts

Reye's syndrome is a type of encephalopathy. It occurs in two stages, and it is considered a two-phase illness because its symptoms set in after a viral infection. While it most often strikes young people, especially children, it can affect adults as well.

Reye's syndrome does not only have a negative impact on the brain and the liver; it affects every organ in the body. It is found to be most common during the winter months when the flu is a major concern.

Reye's syndrome is often confused with other serious conditions such as meningitis and encephalitis. It usually sets in at the point that a patient is in the recovery stage from the original viral infection that has been a matter of concern.

Symptoms & Complaints

The symptoms of Reye's syndrome can be misleading. They may begin with confusion. Another sign that a patient may be suffering from Reye's syndrome is unexplained seizures. In some cases, a loss of consciousness occurs.

In the earliest stage of Reye's syndrome, it may look like the viral infection is getting worse or another virus has set in. A lack of energy and the inability to sleep could be the first sign of a turn for the worse when Reye's syndrome sets in.

Vomiting is common. The patient may become aggressive or have a change in personality. Disorientation sets in next. In the final stages of the condition, delirium and coma could occur. 


Researchers are not certain what causes Reye's syndrome. It appears to be triggered by viral infections that are common for people of all ages. Upper respiratory tract infections, various strains of the flu, and the chickenpox are most often linked with Reye's syndrome.

In rare instances, patients with Reye's syndrome may already have some type of metabolic disorder. In addition, treating a fever or viral symptoms with aspirin may have a connection to the development of Reye's syndrome, especially in children and teenagers.

Reye's syndrome appears to involve the body's inability to break down fatty acids. When an abnormal amount of fat begins to build up on the brain and around vital organs, it applies pressure. If not treated as soon as possible, Reye's syndrome often leads to death. It acts swiftly and can take a patient's life within hours after the condition sets in.

Diagnosis & Tests

There are a variety of tests that medical experts can perform in order to diagnose Reye's syndrome. Blood tests and clinical urine tests can indicate abnormalities. In addition, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), spinal tap (lumbar puncture), a liver biopsy, and skin biopsy can be performed to identify Reye's syndrome as the culprit for a patient's symptoms.

By testing the skin and the liver, it is possible to pinpoint issues with fatty acid oxidation conditions or metabolic disorders. A healthcare professional is likely to suspect Reye's syndrome if a patient is young, has experienced a viral infection, and is exhibiting classic symptoms of Reye's syndrome. 

Treatment & Therapy

The earlier Reye's syndrome is detected and treated, the better a patient's chance for survival. It should be treated in the hospital under the close supervision of a medical team. Emergency treatment is important upon the first signs of Reye's syndrome. A combination of [diuretic]]s, intravenous fluids, and medications that can control any bleeding are often used to treat Reye's syndrome.

In the event that a patient is experiencing difficulty with breathing, a ventilator may be necessary. The most important step is to reduce any swelling of organs, especially the brain. A build up of pressure in the brain is the most deadly complication of Reye's syndrome, as well as the swelling of the liver that can interfere with vital bodily processes.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

One of the biggest steps in prevention of Reye's syndrome is to avoid the use of aspirin or any medications that contain aspirin. While this is a concern for children and teenagers, even adults can be proactive and choose other fever reducers that do not contain aspirin. Aspirin is also referred to as salicylic acid, acetylsalicylic acid, salicylate, and acetylsalicylate. Aspirin may be hidden in many products.

Another step that can be taken in dealing with Reye's syndrome is to take control of viral infections in children if at all possible. Also, one should keep a close watch on patients with viral infections that are often connected with Reye's syndrome, watching for any symptoms of concern, especially if these symptoms set in after the viral infection appears to have run its course.

At the first sign of any complications, one should seek emergency medical attention and request testing for Reye's syndrome. While viral infections are typically not considered a major danger, they become serious when they are the first stage of Reye's syndrome.

Even symptoms that are present and mimic Reye's syndrome but are not due to the condition are a matter of serious concern. They could indicate a severe condition like meningitis. Patients and caregivers need to be aggressive in pursuing solutions for symptoms that indicate Reye's syndrome.

The condition can strike at any age, even though is is most common for young children. For individuals with a known metabolic disorder or fatty oxidation condition, medical professionals and caregivers should be prepared for the possibility of Reye's syndrome.