You have probably heard that you shouldn't give aspirin to children because of the risk of Reye's Syndrome, also called Reye Syndrome, and because this rare but life-threatening illness is usually mentioned in that context, you may think Reye’s syndrome only strikes children, only because of aspirin. You'd be wrong on both counts. Though Reye’s syndrome is more common in children, it can affect people of any age, and though Reye’s syndrome is linked to viral diseases, you don’t need to have taken aspirin to develop it. How is this rare illness connected to the flu and cold?
Reye’s Syndrome: What exactly is it?
Reye’s syndrome a very rare but life-threatening syndrome that can affect the brain, liver, and blood of a person who has not long ago suffered from a viral infection. Sometimes bacterial infections — for instance pertussis, Chlamydia, and Shigella — can cause Reye’s Syndrome too. Reye’s Syndrome always develops in the aftermath of another illness, which is why it's called a two-phase condition.
While Reye’s Syndrome is by far most likely to develop in children and teenagers, people of any age can get it — and when it shows up, Reye's Syndrome comes without warning.
Scientists still don’t know the exact cause of Reye’s Syndrome, but research reveals that people who have taken aspirin have an exponentially higher risk of developing it. That doesn't mean you need to put your aspirin away if you're an adult, though, because Reye's syndrome is incredibly rare, especially in adults. However, about 80 percent of children who develop Reye’s Syndrome took aspirin in the three weeks before, which is why you'll come across warnings not to give aspirin to children at all everywhere. Different pain relievers, like ibuprofen and acetaminophen (also known as Tylenol and paracetamol), are much safer for children.
What are the symptoms of Reye’s Syndrome?
Though Reye’s Syndrome is rare, it's always good to be aware of the symptoms in case you or someone else around you develops it. Watch out for these symptoms soon after a viral infection:
- Behavioral changes like confusion, irritability, or aggression
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unconsciousness and coma
It is important to get medical attention immediately if any of the symptoms of Reye's Syndrome appear shortly after a viral illness. Since Reye’s Syndrome can cause you to go into a coma and it can even lead to brain death, it is crucial that you get a fast diagnosis and treatment. The management of Reye’s Syndrome is mainly focused in reducing the risk of brain damage as, unfortunately, there isn’t any way to cure this syndrome.
Is it possible for me to get Reye’s Syndrome while I am recovering from the flu?
Yes. Reye’s syndrome most commonly develops in people just recovering from a viral illness, so when you feel a little better still aren't quite healthy. However, symptoms can also come three to five days after a viral illness first developed, will you still have the symptoms of the initial infection.
Influenza, the flu, is the viral illness most strongly associated with Reye’s Syndrome — CDC data from the 1980s and ‘90s, when Reye’s syndrome was more common, shows that 73 percent of cases followed the flu. Chickenpox, which is number two on the list of infections associated with Reye's syndrome, "only" preceded a much lower one in five cases.
Can a common cold cause Reye’s Syndrome as well?
Influenza, gastroenteritis, and chickenpox are linked to Reye’s Syndrome more strongly than adenovirus — one of the many viruses that causes the common cold — but Reye's syndrome has been found to follow this virus too in some cases. Another virus that can cause, among other things, cold symptoms is parainfluenza. Parainfluenza can again preceed Reye’s Syndrome, but the connection is much weaker than the one between influenza and Reye's Syndrome.
What message should I take away from this?
Reye’s Syndrome has become very rare after the discovery that aspirin raises the risk was made. Around 36 cases used to be reported in the US every year in the early ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it has steadily declined and the United States now only sees about two cases of Reye's Syndrome annually.