Reye syndrome is sudden (acute) brain damage (encephalopathy) and liver function problems of unknown cause.
The syndrome has occurred with the use of aspirin to treat chickenpox or the flu in children. However, it has become very uncommon since aspirin is no longer recommended for routine use in children.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Reye syndrome is most often seen in children ages 4 - 12. Most cases that occur with chickenpox are in children ages 5 - 9. Cases that occur with the flu (influenzae type B) are usually in children ages 10 - 14.
Reye syndrome often begins with vomiting, which lasts for many hours. The vomiting is quickly followed by irritable and aggressive behavior. As the condition gets worse, the child may be unable to stay awake and alert.
Untreated, seizures and coma may be life-threatening.
Calling your health care provider
Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) immediately if your child has confusion, lethargy, or other mental changes.
Never give a child aspirin unless told to do so by your doctor.
When a child must take aspirin, take care to reduce the child's risk of catching a viral illness such as the flu and chickenpox. Avoid aspirin for several weeks after the child has received a varicella (chickenpox) vaccine.
Note: Other over-the-counter medications, such as Pepto-Bismol and substances with oil of wintergreen also contain aspirin compounds called salicylates. Do not give these to a child who has a cold or fever.
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Michaels MG. Reye syndrome. In: Long SS, Pickering LK, Prober CG, eds. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Churchill Livingstone; 2003:chap 50.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.