Reye’s Syndrome

A rare illness in which there is sudden inflammation of the brain and liver

  • Most common between the ages of 5 and 12
  • Taking aspirin in childhood is a risk factor
  • Gender and genetics are not significant factors

Reye’s syndrome is an extremely rare condition, affecting fewer than 1 in 100,000 children each year in the UK. The disorder causes inflammation of the brain (see Viral encephalitis) and the liver (see Acute hepatitis) and can be fatal. It almost always occurs in children under the age of 12. The exact cause of Reye’s syndrome is not known, but it is thought that in some cases the disorder may be associated with a viral infection, such as chickenpox. Aspirin is linked to Reye’s syndrome and is no longer recommended for children under the age of 16.

The symptoms develop very rapidly over a few hours and may include vomiting, drowsiness, and seizures. As the disorder progresses, there may be loss of consciousness, coma, and eventually cessation of breathing.

What might be done?

If a child is very sick, he or she will be admitted to an intensive therapy unit. Tests to confirm the diagnosis include blood tests to assess liver function, a tracing of the electrical activity in the brain (see EEG), and CT scanning or MRI to look for brain swelling. A sample of the liver may be removed for microscopic examination (see Liver biopsy).

There is no specific cure for Reye’s syndrome, but supportive treatment, such as mechanical ventilation, will be given until the condition improves. More than half of all children who have Reye’s syndrome recover spontaneously. However, for those who lapse into a deep coma, the outlook is poor, and the condition may be fatal. In some cases, Reye’s syndrome leads to long-term developmental problems, such as speech and learning difficulties.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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