Reye's syndrome is a rare condition that causes serious liver and brain damage. If it is not treated promptly it may result in permanent brain injury or death.

Most recorded cases of Reye's syndrome happen in children, but adult cases have also occurred.

Symptoms can include:

  • persistent vomiting
  • loss of energy
  • changing mood, such as irritability or severe confusion and anxiety (delirium)
  • drowsiness and eventually coma 

Read more about symptoms of Reye's syndrome.

What causes Reye's syndrome?

The exact cause of Reye's syndrome is unknown, but most cases have been in children recovering from a viral infection, such as influenza (flu) or chickenpox, and in many of these cases the child had previously taken aspirin to treat their symptoms.

Read more about the causes of Reye's syndrome.

Due to the possible link between Reye's syndrome and aspirin, the medicines watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), recommends children under 16 years old should not take aspirin unless advised to do so by a doctor.

Read more about preventing Reye's syndrome.

Who is affected?

Since health warnings were issued in the late 1980s about not giving aspirin to children, the number of cases of Reye's syndrome has fallen dramatically.

There was an average of 41 cases of Reye's syndrome a year in the UK and Ireland during the 1980s. This fell to nine during the 1990s. In 2002, there was only one confirmed case of Reye's syndrome. Up to April 2009 there were three suspected cases.

Despite the decrease, some healthcare professionals believe a large flu pandemic (a global outbreak of a new strain of the flu virus) may lead to an upsurge in cases of Reye's syndrome, particularly if parents ignore the warning about aspirin.

Reye's syndrome affects boys and girls, and all races, equally.

Treating Reye's syndrome

Reye's syndrome should be treated as a medical emergency because it can rapidly damage the liver and brain. A child with Reye's syndrome will need to be taken immediately to an intensive care unit so their body's functions can be supported while they are receiving treatment.

Read more about treating Reye's syndrome.

As a result of advances in diagnosing and treating Reye's syndrome, it is now estimated that eight out of 10 people who develop the condition will survive. However, children can sometimes develop a degree of brain damage after recovering from Reye's syndrome.

Read more about complications of Reye’s syndrome.

Inherited metabolic disorders

It is now thought many children who appear to have symptoms of Reye's syndrome actually have an inherited metabolic disorder, known as a 'Reye-like' illness.

Read about diagnosing Reye's syndrome for more information on inherited metabolic disorders.

Page last reviewed: 30/10/2012

Next review due: 30/10/2014