Reye’s (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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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 tragic—and puzzling—situation. 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 Reye’s syndrome.
Today, Reye’s syndrome is rare because doctors have learned ways to lower people’s 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.
Typically, Reye’s syndrome begins after a viral infection, such as a cold, influenza, or chickenpox. Most such infections do not lead to Reye’s syndrome, and some cases are so mild that no one notices. Other cases are more serious.
Aspirin and Reye’s Syndrome
Although the link between aspirin and Reye’s 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 Reye’s syndrome.
Although adults and babies can develop Reye’s 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, Reye’s syndrome can cause loss of consciousness, coma, and death.
Reye’s 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 Reye’s syndrome. Some doctors suspect that an unidentified virus causes Reye’s 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 Reye’s syndrome (see sidebar).
- * genes
- are chemicals in the body that help determine a person’s characteristics, such as hair or eye color. They are inherited from a person’s parents and are contained in the chromosomes found in the eels of the body.
Treatment for Reye’s syndrome occurs in a hospital. Various medications and fluids are used to bring the patient’s body back into balance. The patient’s condition must be closely monitored, and sometimes the use of a breathing machine may be necessary to support an unconscious patient’s respiration until the illness resolves.
National Reye’s 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. http://www.bright.net/~reyessyn