Reye's syndrome (RYES SIN-drome) 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.
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 their condition took a turn for the worse.
Dr. R. Douglas Reye (1912–1978) was the director of pathology at that Australian hospital when these children died in the 1950s and early 1960s. He discovered odd symptoms, such as swollen brains, discolored livers, and damaged kidneys in the children. He realized that these children died from an as yet unnamed disease.
In 1963 George Johnson, a doctor in North Carolina, 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 was later known simply as Reye's syndrome.
In 2015 Reye's syndrome was 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. Such infections typically do not lead to Reye's syndrome, and some cases are so mild that no one notices. Other cases are more serious.
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.
As of 2015, no one was sure how some viral infections develop into Reye's syndrome. Some doctors suspected that an unidentified virus causes Reye's syndrome. Others theorized 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.
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.
See also Chickenpox (Varicella) • Influenza • Viral Infections
Largent, Mark A. Keep Out of Reach of Children: Reye's Syndrome, Aspirin, and the Politics of Public Health. Minneapolis, MN: Bellevue, 2015.
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National Organization for Rare Disorders. “Reye Syndrome.” https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/reye-syndrome/ (accessed November 15, 2015).
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American Liver Foundation. 39 Broadway, Suite 2700, New York, New York 10006. Telephone: 212-668-1000. Website: http://www.liverfoundation.org (accessed November 15, 2015).
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. PO Box 5801, Bethesda, MD 20824. Telephone: 301-496-5751. Website: http://www.ninds.nih.gov (accessed August 24, 2015).
National Organization for Rare Disorders. 55 Kenosia Ave., Danbury, CT 06810. Telephone: 203-744-0100. Website: http://rarediseases.org (accessed November 16, 2015).
National Reye's Syndrome Foundation. PO Box 829, Bryan, OH 43506. Toll-free: 800-233-7393. Website: http://www.reyessyndrome.org (accessed August 12, 2015).
* coma (KO-ma) is an unconscious state, like a very deep sleep. A person in a coma cannot be awakened, and cannot move, see, speak, or hear.
* genes (JEENS) are chemical structures composed of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that help determine a person's body structure and physical characteristics. Inherited from a person's parents, genes are contained in the chromosomes found in the body's cells.