Reye's syndrome: Why taking aspirin can be fatal

Reye's syndrome: Why taking aspirin can be fatal

Reye's syndrome is a potentially deadly disease if left undiagnosed and untreated. Here's what you need to know to prevent it!

Reye's syndrome may be uncommon but it is an illness that can be fatal if undetected and untreated. This is why knowing its symptoms is crucial.


The condition is named after R. Douglas Reye, an Australian pathologist who first reported it in the 1960s. It is a rare, potentially fatal disease that can cause swelling and damage to both the brain and liver.

It is linked to the use of aspirin, especially when given to children and teens who are recovering from a viral infection such as chicken pox or the flu.

Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms appear three to seven days after the start of a viral infection.

Initial symptoms

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Other signs

  • Irritability or sudden change in behavior (i.e. aggressiveness)
  • Confusion, hallucinations, disorientation (not recognizing anyone)
  • Paralysis or weakness in limbs
  • Sleepiness
  • Hyperventilation
  • Slurred speech
  • Changes in vision
  • Difficulty in hearing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures

reye's syndrome


The exact causes remain unidentified. What is known, however, is that Reye's syndrome is set off by using aspirin to treat a viral infection in children, who suffer from an existing yet undetected fatty acid oxidation disorder.

Risk Factors

  • Use of aspirin to treat a viral infection
  • Pre-existing fatty acid oxidation disorder

Usually, the combination of both leads to contracting the condition.


Rye syndrome can cause death within a few days if it is undetected and untreated. Different degrees of brain damage are also probable, though children who are treated are more likely to survive.

When to Call the Doctor

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If your child has symptoms of Reye's syndrome - even if he hasn't suffered from a recent illness or taken aspirin - call the doctor immediately.

Tests and Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about Reye's syndrome's symptoms, any recent viral infections a child has suffered, as well as aspirin intake and past medical history.

While there is no test to determine the condition, tests to determine fatty acid oxidation disorder along with other metabolic disorders can be requested by the doctor.

Other more invasive tests

  • Biopsy
    • Skin - to test for fatty acid oxidation disorder
    • Liver - to determine other probable causes that affect the liver
  • Spinal tap - to determine whether there are other diseases causing the symptoms the child is experiencing
  • CT or MRI scan - to determine whether there are other causes for these symptoms: change in behavior and decreased activity

Treatments and Drugs

Children who have Reye's syndrome are usually treated in the hospital. The following are administered:

  • Glucose and electrolytes given intravenously to keep the child hydrated
  • Breathing machine or ventilator if the child has difficulty breathing
  • Monitoring of fluid of the brain and blood pressure is done

A child may also be given:

  • A small amount of insulin to improve glucose metabolism
  • Corticosteroids, which are anti-inflammatory, to reduce brain swelling
  • Diuretics to remove excess water
  • Medications to treat seizures and/or prevent bleeding; the latter can be caused by liver abnormalities


  • Get your child screened for fatty acid oxidation disorder.
  • Avoid giving aspirin or using products that contain aspirin to children. Talk to your doctor about alternatives to aspirin.
  • Always check the label of medicines whether they contain aspirin or not. Alka-Seltzer is such a product that has aspirin. Other names for aspirin are: acetylsalicylic acid, acetylsalicylate, salicylic acid and salicylate.

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