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Understanding Reye Syndrome

Updated on March 7, 2016

Reye syndrome refers to a rare childhood illness which affects a child’s brain and liver. The condition previously occurred more commonly as a result of the frequent use of aspirin to treat childhood illnesses. Since aspirin is not currently recommended for routine use in children, the condition has become extremely rare—the Nemours Foundation notes that only a few cases of the syndrome are reported in the United States each year.

The syndrome most commonly affects children between the ages of 4 and 12. It usually occurs with chickenpox, the flu, or other viral illnesses. The condition usually begins from one day to two weeks after a child has suffered from an upper respiratory infection or the chickenpox.

Children with Reye syndrome usually become sick suddenly and require immediate medical attention, as the illness can be life-threatening. The symptoms can range from mild to extremely serious. Common signs of Reye syndrome include vomiting, fatigue, lethargy, irritability, aggressive behavior, and, in infants, rapid breathing and diarrhea. As the condition progresses, it can lead to confusion, muscle weakness, abnormal speech, vision and hearing problems, seizures, and loss of consciousness.

While the viral illness that leads to Reye syndrome can be passed on to others, the actual syndrome is not contagious. A health care provider will attempt to treat the condition by providing the child with breathing support, fluids, and steroids that can help reduce swelling in the brain.

Prevention of Reye syndrome is critical; aspirin and other drugs that contain salicylates should not be given to children unless specifically instructed by a medical provider to do so. Read medication labels carefully, as many over-the-counter drugs contain salicylates, such as Pepto-Bismol and similar medicines, and substances containing oil of wintergreen. Make sure to keep medications safely out of children’s reach, and talk to your doctor if you are unsure about whether or not a medication is safe for children.

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