What is Reye’s Syndrome? Causes, symptoms, treatment, complications, and prevention

Reye’s Syndrome or Reye Syndrome is a disease that causes swelling in the liver and brain. It is a very rare disease. Approximately 20 people get the disease in the US each year.

It typically affects children and adolescents who are recovering from a viral infection such as chicken pox or the flu. If not treated promptly, it can lead to permanent brain injury and even death.

According to the Cleveland Clinic:

“Reye’s syndrome is primarily a children’s disease, although it can occur at any age. Cases usually happen in the fall and winter seasons and are present in children younger than 18 years old.

Causes of Reye’s syndrome

Before 1988, between 200 and 550 new cases were reported each year in the US. Many experts attribute the steep decline to public awareness campaigns regarding a potential link between Reye’s syndrome and the use of aspirin (aspirin-containing medicines) for some viral infections.

According to rarediseases.org:

“Many researchers attribute the decline to increased public awareness concerning the potential association between Reye syndrome and the use of aspirin-containing preparations for certain viral infections and the recognition that some children suspected of having Reye syndrome actually have an inborn error of metabolism.”

“Similar decreases in incidence rates have also been reported in the United Kingdom after public health warnings were issued.”

Signs and symptoms

The following signs and symptoms are common, and may appear rapidly:

  • Lack of energy and despondency (lack of enthusiasm).
  • Vomiting persistently or repeatedly.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Confusion.
  • Seizures (fits).
  • Rapid breathing.

The following may also occur when the condition progresses and becomes more severe:

  • Irrational/aggressive behavior.
  • Severe anxiety, delirium, sometimes with hallucinations.
  • Coma.

If your child has any of these symptoms after a viral illness, get medical help immediately. Reye’s syndrome can be fatal.

Interesting related reading: What’s the difference between a sign and a symptom?

Reye's Syndrome - image of boy and girl brain liver and some advice

Image created by MedicalVocab.com.

Diagnosing Reye’s Syndrome

The doctor will ask the child (and also their parent, guardian) about their signs and symptoms, when they started, and discuss their medical history. They will also ask about any recent viral infections, after which they will carry out a physical examination.

The doctor will order blood tests, a liver biopsy, or a spinal tap (lumbar puncture) to help with the diagnosis.

A quick diagnosis is crucial because Reye’s syndrome can rapidly get worse.


There is no direct cure for Reye’s syndrome, so the aim of treatment is to manage symptoms and make the patient as comfortable as possible. Most of them will be hospitalized, possibly in the ICU (intensive care unit).

Doctors focus on protecting the patient’s brain by reducing swelling, preventing lung complications, and reversing liver damage and metabolic injury (low levels of oxygen in the blood).

In some cases, doctors will need to lower pressure on the brain and help with breathing. The healthcare staff will carefully monitor the child for any sign of worsening.

Complications of Reye’s syndrome

The following complications are possible:

  • Liver damage.
  • Brain damage.
  • Death.

Hence, it is vital to get medical help immediately if you suspect a child has Reye’s syndrome.

The Mayo Clinic says the following regarding complications:

“Most children and teenagers who have Reye’s syndrome survive. However, varying degrees of lasting brain damage are possible. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, Reye’s syndrome can cause death within a few days.”


We know that giving aspirin to children and adolescents during a viral infection (or shortly after one) can increase their risk of developing Reye’s syndrome. Therefore, that must be avoided. For fever or discomfort, there are other effective medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, paracetamol).