Reye's syndrome is a disorder principally affecting the liver and brain, marked by rapid development of life-threatening neurological symptoms.
Reye's syndrome is an emergency illness chiefly affecting children and teenagers. It almost always follows a viral illness such as a cold, the flu, or chicken pox. Reye's syndrome may affect all the organs of the body, but most seriously affects the brain and liver. Rapid development of severe neurological symptoms, including lethargy, confusion, seizures, and coma, make Reye's syndrome a life-threatening emergency.
Reye's syndrome is a rare illness, even rarer now than when first described in the early 1970s. The incidence of the disorder peaked in 1980, with 555 cases reported. The number of cases declined rapidly thereafter due to decreased use of aspirin compounds for childhood fever, an important risk factor for Reye's syndrome development. Because of its rarity, it is often misdiagnosed as encephalitis, meningitis, diabetes, or poisoning, and the true incidence may be higher than the number of reported cases indicates.
Causes and symptoms
Reye's syndrome causes fatty accumulation in the organs of the body, especially the liver. In the brain, it causes fluid accumulation (edema), which leads to a rise in intracranial pressure. This pressure squeezes blood vessels, preventing blood from entering the brain. Untreated, this pressure increase leads to brain damage and death.
Although the cause remains unknown, Reye's syndrome appears to be linked to an abnormality in the energy-converting structures (mitochondria) within the body's cells.
Reye's syndrome usually occurs after a viral, fever-causing illness, most often an upper respiratory tract infection. Its cause is unknown. It is most often associated with use of aspirin during the fever, and for this reason aspirin and aspirin-containing products are not recommended for people under the age of 19 during fever. Reye's syndrome may occur without aspirin use, and in adults, although very rarely.
After the beginning of recovery from the viral illness, the affected person suddenly becomes worse, with the development of persistent vomiting. This may be followed rapidly by quietness, lethargy, agitation or combativeness, seizures, and coma. In infants, diarrhea may be more common than vomiting. Fever is usually absent at this point.
Richard Robinson, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,