Reye's syndrome in babies and children

Reye's syndrome in babies and children

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What is Reye's syndrome?

Reye's (pronounced "rise") or Reye syndrome is a rare and very serious illness that children can develop while recovering from a viral infection such as the flu, a cold, or chicken pox.

Reye's syndrome can cause:

  • brain swelling
  • accumulation of massive amounts of fat in the liver and other organs
  • liver failure, brain damage, and even death if left untreated

Reye's syndrome usually affects children between the ages of 4 and 12. However, it can also strike babies, toddlers, and adults.

While it can occur at any time of year, rates are highest during the flu season months of January, February, and March.

In part because it's so uncommon, Reye's is often misdiagnosed. For example, it may be mistaken for encephalitis, meningitis, a drug overdose, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), or poisoning.

If you think your child may have Reye's syndrome, consider it a medical emergency. Call the doctor right away, take your child to the emergency room, or call 911. Early diagnosis can significantly improve the chances of survival.

What causes Reye's syndrome in children?

The exact cause of Reye's syndrome is unknown, but it's strongly linked to aspirin, and aspirin-containing medication. In fact, ninety to 95 percent of Reye's syndrome patients in the United States took aspirin during a recent viral illness.

To protect against Reye's syndrome, never give your child aspirin or products that contain aspirin for any reason unless a doctor advises it. (Note that aspirin sometimes goes by other names such as salicylate, acetylsalicylate, acetylsalicylic acid, salicylamide, and phenyl salicylate). Two common, over-the-counter products that contain aspirin are Alka Seltzer and Pepto Bismol.

Some children are prescribed aspirin for a specific condition, such as a heart condition or brain condition. If this is the case for your child, his doctor has determined that the benefits of aspirin therapy for him far outweigh the risk of Reye's syndrome.

How common is Reye's syndrome in children?

Reye's syndrome is extremely rare.

The number of Reye's syndrome cases peaked in 1979 to 1980, at 555. After that time – when the government began issuing warnings about the association between Reye's and aspirin – the number of cases dwindled.

Since 1994, two or fewer cases have been reported annually in the United States.

Signs and symptoms of Reye's syndrome in babies and children

Symptoms come on very suddenly. Early symptoms often include:

  • Fever (this is frequently the first symptom)
  • Diarrhea
  • Listlessness
  • Drowsiness
  • Rash

In babies, the first signs might include diarrhea and irregular breathing.

Symptoms most often show up as a child is starting to recover from a viral illness, but they can appear as early as three days after the onset of the illness or as late as three weeks after the illness is over.

As the disease progresses and affects the brain, the child may become:

  • Agitated
  • Hyperactive
  • Confused
  • Combative
  • Delirious
  • Have unusual posture (his arms and legs held straight out, toes pointed down, and head and neck arched back)
  • Have a convulsion
  • Slip into a coma

Without treatment, a child with Reye's syndrome may die.

Of course, kids with other, less serious illnesses may have some of these symptoms, too. But because early treatment for Reye's syndrome is so important, you'll want to be cautious.

How is Reye's syndrome diagnosed in a child?

To diagnose Reye's syndrome, a healthcare provider will likely ask about your child's symptoms, health history, any recent viral illnesses, and if your child has taken aspirin or medicines containing aspirin.

The provider may order tests, including:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine and stool tests
  • Liver biopsy (where a small sample of your child's liver is taken for testing)
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) (to test brain activity)
  • Spinal tap (this involves a provider taking a sample of cerebrospinal fluid from your child's lower back so it can be tested for infection)
  • Intracranial pressure monitoring (ICP) (to measure pressure inside your child's skull in case of brain swelling)
  • MRI (to create a detailed image of what's happening inside your child's body)

Treatment for Reye's syndrome in babies and young children

Children with Reye's syndrome need treatment in the hospital. Quick diagnosis and early treatment are key. There's no cure for Reye's syndrome, but it's possible for a child to have a complete recovery if he receives proper treatment early on.

At the hospital, doctors will work to protect the child's brain and lungs against damage by:

  • Making sure the child stays hydrated
  • Monitoring his blood pressure and the pressure of fluid in the brain.
  • Putting a child who is having trouble breathing on a breathing machine.
  • Giving various medications, depending on symptoms: diuretics to rid the body of extra fluids, anti-seizure medications for seizures, and corticosteroids to reduce brain swelling, for example.

How to protect your child from Reye's syndrome

Not giving your child aspirin is your best defense.

Reye's syndrome isn't contagious, so you don't have to worry about your child catching it.

To safeguard your child's health, take the following precautions:

  • Don't give your child aspirin. Never give aspirin to anyone 19 years old or younger. If your child has a virus (or even viral-like symptoms), ask his doctor what medications you might safely give him for pain relief, if necessary. (Also note that so-called "baby aspirin" is not intended for babies, so do not give it to a child. It's a type of low-dose aspirin sometimes taken by older people to help prevent heart attacks and stroke).
  • Don't take aspirin if you're nursing. That includes products containing aspirin. The drug is passed through breast milk.
  • Read labels carefully to avoid accidentally giving aspirin to your child. Many over-the-counter drugs contain aspirin, including some antacids, anti-nausea, and cold and sinus medicines. Be on the lookout for terms like salicylate, acetylsalicylate, acetylsalicylic acid, salicylamide, and phenyl salicylate, which may be used instead of the word aspirin. (Many over-the-counter drugs aren't safe for young children. Check for age restrictions, and ask a doctor if you have any questions about the appropriateness of a drug for your child.)

See Medicines you shouldn't give your baby or toddler.

See Medicines you shouldn't give your child.

Where to get more information

For more information and resources, visit the website of the National Reye's Syndrome Foundation.

Watch the video: Historical PSAs - Reyes Syndrome - C. Everett Koop (June 2022).


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