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Reye’s Syndrome

Reyes Syndrome

A Sudden Change


Reyes (RIZE) syndrome is a rare and potentially fatal disorder in children that affects the liver, brain, and other organs. It may appear shortly after a viral infection such as chickenpox or influenza.


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Viral infection

The children always arrived at the Australian hospital on the verge of death. They often would be unconscious or in a coma. Sometimes their bodies suffered uncontrollable spasms, and the children seemed to be slipping into insanity.

It was a tragicand puzzlingsituation. Only a week or so earlier, the children had been experiencing the typical childhood infections such as earaches, chest colds, or sore throats. Then things took a turn for the worse.

Dr. Douglas Reye was the director of pathology at that Australian hospital when these children died in the 1950s and early 1960s. He discovered odd things, such as swollen brains, discolored livers, and damaged kidneys in the children. He realized that they were dealing with an as yet unnamed disease.

In 1963, a doctor in North Carolina named George Johnson saw a link between the disease Reye had discovered and one he was seeing in children after an outbreak of influenza. The disease was initially called Reye-Johnson syndrome and is now simply Reyes syndrome.

Today, Reyes syndrome is rare because doctors have learned ways to lower peoples risk of getting it as well as better ways of identifying and treating people with the illness. The syndrome is not contagious, although the viral infections that often precede it can be.

A Sudden Change

Typically, Reyes syndrome begins after a viral infection, such as a cold, influenza, or chickenpox. Most such infections do not lead to Reyes syndrome, and some cases are so mild that no one notices. Other cases are more serious.

Aspirin and Reyes Syndrome

Although the link between aspirin and Reyes syndrome is not conclusive, doctors and the U.S. government recommend that no child under age 16 take aspirin or products with aspirin during a viral infection. In fact, no child under age 12 with almost any illness should take aspirin. Aspirin substitutes, such as acetaminophen, are not linked with Reyes syndrome.

Although adults and babies can develop Reyes syndrome, it usually occurs in children between the ages of 2 and 16.

Symptoms include vomiting, nausea, and drowsiness. There is also a change in behavior, and patients may act irrationally and seem to have lost touch with reality. If untreated, Reyes syndrome can cause loss of consciousness, coma, and death.

Reyes syndrome causes the brain and liver to swell and the liver to develop fatty deposits. The chemistry of the blood and other body fluids becomes abnormal.

No one is sure how some viral infections develop into Reyes syndrome. Some doctors suspect that an unidentified virus causes Reyes syndrome. Others theorize that people with certain genes* are more likely to get it. Some studies in the 1980s linked aspirin to the development of Reyes syndrome (see sidebar).

* genes
are chemicals in the body that help determine a persons characteristics, such as hair or eye color. They are inherited from a persons parents and are contained in the chromosomes found in the eels of the body.

Treatment for Reyes syndrome occurs in a hospital. Various medications and fluids are used to bring the patients body back into balance. The patients condition must be closely monitored, and sometimes the use of a breathing machine may be necessary to support an unconscious patients respiration until the illness resolves.

See also


Viral Infections


National Reyes Syndrome Foundation, P.O. Box 829, Bryan, OH 43506-0829, (800) 233-7393. The website has helpful information, including a list of products that contain aspirin and similar substances.

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