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What is Reye's Syndrome?

Reye's Syndrome, a deadly disease, strikes swiftly and can attack any child, teen, or adult without warning. All body organs are affected with the liver and brain suffering most seriously. While the cause and cure remain unknown, research has established a link between Reye's Syndrome and the use of aspirin and other salicylate containing medications, over the counter products, and topical use products.

Reye's Syndrome is a two-phase illness because it is almost always associated with a previous viral infection such as influenza (flu), cold, or chicken pox. Scientists do know that Reye's Syndrome is not contagious and the cause is unknown. Reye's Syndrome is often misdiagnosed as encephalitis, meningitis, diabetes, drug overdose, poisoning, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or psychiatric illness.

Reye's Syndrome tends to appear with greatest frequency during January, February, and March when influenza is most common. Cases are reported in every month of the year. An epidemic of flu or chicken pox is commonly followed by an increase in the number of cases of Reye's Syndrome.

When Reye's Syndrome develops, it typically occurs when a person is beginning to recover from a viral illness.

Abnormal accumulations of fat begin to develop in the liver and other organs of the body, along with a severe increase of pressure in the brain. Unless diagnosed and treated successfully, death is common, often within a few days, and even a few hours. A person's life depends upon early diagnosis. Statistics indicate an excellent chance of recovery when Reye's Syndrome is diagnosed and treated in its earliest stages. The later the diagnosis and treatment, the more severely reduced are the chances for successful recovery and survival.

Stage 1 Symptoms

  • Persistent or continuous vomiting

  • Signs of brain dysfunction:

  • Listlessness

  • Loss of pep and energy

  • Drowsiness

Stage 2 Symptoms

  • Personality changes:

  • Irritability

  • Aggressive behavior

Stage 3 Symptoms

  • Disorientation:

  • Confusion

  • Irrational behavior

  • Combative

Stage 4 Symptoms

  • Delirium

  • Convulsions

  • Coma

NOTE: The symptoms of Reye's Syndrome in infants do not follow a typical pattern. For example, vomiting may be replaced with diarrhea and infants may display irregular breathing.

Suspect Reye's in an Infant with:

  •  Diarrhea, but not necessarily vomiting

  •  Respiratory disturbances such as hyperventilation or apneic episodes, seizures and hypoglycemia are common

  •  Elevated SGOT-SGPT (SAT-ACT) [usually 200 or more units] in the absence of jaundice

Reye's Syndrome should be suspected in a person if this pattern of symptoms appear during, or most commonly, after a viral illness. Not all of the symptoms have to occur, nor do they have to be displayed in this order. Fever is not usually present. Many diseases have symptoms in common. Physicians and medical staff in emergency rooms who have not had experience in treating Reye's Syndrome may misdiagnose the disease.

Suspect Reye's in a Patient with:

  • Unexpected vomiting following any viral illness such as a flu-like upper respiratory infection or chicken pox (usually no diarrhea)

  • Elevated SGOT-SGPT (SAT-ACT) [usually 200 or more units] in the absence of jaundice

  • Signs of disturbed brain function characterized by:

    • Lethargy

    • Staring

    • Stupor

    • Agitated delirium

    • Screaming

    • Drug reaction-like behavior

    • Extensor spasms

    • Decerebrate rigidity

    • Aspirin poisoning-like symptoms

    • Coma

For Early Diagnosis:

  • Vomiting, think Reye's

  • Emergency SGOT-SGPT (SAT-ACT)

  • Elevated blood NH3

  • Hypoglycemia and hepatomegaly may be present

Differential Diagnosis:

  • Meningitis

  • Encephalitis

  • Diabetes

  • Drug Overdose

  • Sudden Infant Death

  • Toxic Ingestion

  • Head Trauma

  • Renal or Hepatic Failure

  • Poisoning 


Reye's is often mistaken for the diagnosis listed above, so encourage your doctor to look twice and to consider ruling out Reye's!

Initial Treatment:

  • 10% Glucose in maintenance salt solution

  • Maintain airway and brain oxygen

  • Consult a teaching hospital or children's hospital


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